Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Baghdad last week on what was probably his last official trip to the country he helped save from devastating sectarian war. His visit was hardly a victory lap. His comments were as demure as they usually have been. That tenor was appropriate, for it is still too early to declare “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Iraqi politics remain unsettled. Tensions along the Kurd-Arab frontier are high. Iranian-supported militant groups continue to attack American and Iraqi forces. Al Qaeda in Iraq is struggling to regain its footing. The Iraqi Security Forces will be unable to manage the many challenges they face at the end of this year.
But the Obama administration appears more than willing to declare “mission accomplished” when the last American soldier leaves Iraq in December, regardless of the situation there. A “senior U.S. defense official” put it this way: “If [the Iraqis] are going to ask for a modification [to current withdrawal schedules] or anything else, it would probably be in their interest to ask for it sooner rather than later because we’re starting to run out of months. . . . The ball is in their court.” The implication of these comments, and of the administration’s Iraq policy to date, is that America has no substantial interest in what happens in Iraq after December. If the Iraqis want to have a relationship, the United States may be willing; if not, not. Either way, the mission Obama gave himself when he took office—“end this war”—will have been accomplished.
Defenders of administration policy say it is a mistake to conflate a continued American military presence with the overall Iraqi-American relationship. The Strategic Framework Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008, they say, was not predicated on American troops in Iraq. It was intended, instead, to foster a series of nonmilitary exchanges, programs, and relationships designed to bind Iraq and America together. The U.S.-Iraqi alliance, these defenders might say, is merely entering a new phase that is appropriate to conditions in which U.S. military forces in Iraq are neither needed nor desired.
Such arguments are alarmingly naïve, however. There has been no meaningful development of Iraqi-American nonmilitary ties, although the State Department surely can produce a laundry list of initiatives along those lines. The current administration plan, for instance, envisages thousands of American civilians going into Iraq in 2012, expanding the embassy in Baghdad and several large civilian bases around the country. A military officer would head up an Office of Security Cooperation (OSC) of the sort that oversees American military assistance to many countries around the world.
Of the many problems with this plan, a few stand out. We have been hearing about “civilian surges” into Iraq and Afghanistan for years, yet the nondefense contributions to such surges have been limited, slow to arrive, and painful to maintain. Nor is even an expanded OSC of the kind the administration proposes appropriate for a country that requires a large and diverse set of peacekeeping, training, equipment, and support missions. For example, the thousands of civilians contemplated in the administration’s plan include a mini-army controlled by the embassy just to provide security for U.S. officials after the actual military has left. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to allow the U.S. military to perform such functions with troops and equipment already maintained for that purpose?
America has done virtually nothing on the nonmilitary side to bind Iraq to the West. On the contrary, Iran has done everything in its power to drive a wedge between Iraq and the United States. Not only do Iranian weapons and Iranian-trained fighters continue to flow into Iraq, but Iranian businesses (many tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), money, officials, clerics, and propaganda pour into the country. America has made no attempt to counter this Iranian offensive. We have not encouraged Western companies to compete with Iranian investment. We have conducted no public relations efforts in Iraq to counter the Iranian narrative. As Iran’s leaders have aggressively courted, cajoled, threatened, and promised Iraq’s political elites, the United States has almost entirely ignored them. If the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship depends on soft power alone, then there is no future. The Obama administration has forfeited that game.
The notion that soft power can replace American military forces in Iraq on January 1, 2012, fundamentally misjudges the situation on the ground. The tenuous peace along the northern Arab-Kurd seam is maintained by the presence of tripartite peacekeeping forces in which American ground troops play a decisive role. The withdrawal of those forces would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the peacekeeping agreement and might lead to the collapse of the peace itself. Without the continued presence of American military advisers, Iraq’s security forces will be inadequate to meet the challenges from Iranian-backed militias and Sunni revanchist groups including Al Qaeda in Iraq. Iraqi Security Forces are not even up to the basic requirements of defending Iraq’s sovereignty. Iraq has no capability to police or control its own airspace and an extremely limited ability to defend its coast and the vital offshore oil platforms through which most of its oil flows. Nor will such a capacity be in place by 2012.
Critics of the war in Iraq have long argued that the 2003 invasion did nothing but give Iraq to the Iranians. Tehran certainly leapt to take advantage of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and some U.S. policies were remarkably complacent about dealing with Iranian-backed political figures. But, from 2004 until today, American forces have continuously resisted Iranian military operations in Iraq and, until 2009, attempted to support and encourage Iraqi leaders willing to stand up to the threat from the east. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did so on many occasions, most notably in 2008 when he ordered the Iraqi Army to clear Iranian-backed militias out of Basra. The United States supported him with everything we had.
The contrast between that support and the near-total disregard of Iraqi requests for help in resisting Iranian pressures during the formation of the current government could not have been starker. If Maliki now feels the need to bow to Iranian pressure, it is not because he is Tehran’s man. Quite the opposite: Tehran’s agents spent most of 2006-2009 trying to kill him. But why would anyone expect Maliki or Iraq’s other leaders to continue risking their lives to oppose Iran when there is no support forthcoming from Washington? Iraq’s Shiites have demonstrated repeatedly since 2003 that they do not wish to be ruled by Iranian mullahs. They have said publicly and privately that they need help to remain independent. Will America really not provide that help?
Nothing requires us to keep massive numbers of American troops in Iraq. Twenty thousand soldiers would be enough for the next several years. That number is smaller than the American military presence in Korea, Japan, and Germany. Nor would those forces be engaged in combat. The 50,000-odd U.S. troops in Iraq today are occupied primarily with peacekeeping, training, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces, and counterterrorism. These are missions Americans would continue to undertake in 2012 and beyond. Nor is there any need to pour money into Iraq to support the modernization and development of the Iraqi Security Forces—Iraq has more than enough money to pay for itself. What Iraq requires are trainers, foreign suppliers, and, above all, supporters. To extend the American military presence in Iraq would not be a commitment to endless war or large expenditures. It would reap the benefit of the cost in blood and treasure that the United States has already paid.
The ball is not in Maliki’s court. It is in Obama’s court. If the administration understands that American interests in Iraq and throughout the Middle East are best served by supporting an independent Iraq and cementing a long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship, then the White House must take the initiative. The administration must stop signaling that it can take Iraq or leave it and instead signal a determination to stand by Iraq’s leaders as long as those leaders stand by the democratic processes now tenuously in place and commit to the ethno-sectarian peace achieved at such a high price. The administration must make clear to the Kurds that there will be no American support for them now or in the future unless they throw their weight behind a new agreement between Washington and Baghdad. The administration must call on the Turks and the Saudis to help counterbalance Iranian pressures on Iraq’s leaders. Above all, the administration must stop using Iraqi missteps in forming their current government as an excuse to put off discussion of the U.S.-Iraq security partnership. Iraq has a prime minister and a parliament. That is enough to start negotiations.
American policy can no longer be to “end this war.” “This war” was over long ago. But the fight for Iraq and for America’s place in a critical part of the Greater Middle East continues. It is a fight the Obama administration must win.