Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said yesterday that "Iraq [should] host U.S. troops beyond the end of the year to maintain stability and keep Iran at bay," according to the Wall Street Journal.
"It would be reassuring to the Gulf States. It would not be reassuring to Iran, and that is a good thing," Mr. Gates said....
Mr. Gates said a continued American presence in Iraq would help sustain the "investment in treasure and lives" the U.S. has made in Iraq and help show other countries in the Middle East that a "multisectarian, multi-ethnic" democracy in the Arab world will work.
It would seem that Gates's upcoming retirement, which is scheduled for next month, has been liberating. (Over the weekend, the Defense secretary dinged the administration for which he still works for proposing further Defense cuts). This time, he's speaking out against Obama on Iraq.
Just today, President Obama praised himself in front of the British Parliament, saying, "After years of conflict, the United States has removed 100,000 troops from Iraq, the United Kingdom has removed its forces, and our combat mission there has ended." Obama has previously called Iraq a "dumb war" and clearly indicated he wants to cut and run as soon as possible.
Gates made it clear yesterday that more work in Iraq still needs to be done. As Voice of America reported,
Gates said that despite domestic pressure to reduce military spending, the United States should agree to keep some troops in Iraq, if asked. He said it is worthwhile for the United States to support Iraq’s democracy and to sustain progress made with the help of American money and lives lost in the war. He also noted a strategic reason.
“I think it also sends a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving, that we will continue to play a part. I think it would be reassuring to the [Persian] Gulf states. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing. I think it would be reassuring elsewhere in the region as well, beyond the Gulf. So I think that there is a mutual interest, both in Iraq and in the United States, in sustaining this relationship," he said.
Gates’ comments on Iraq came in answer to a question after a speech on global U.S. defense priorities, in which he urged budget-cutters in Congress and the Obama Administration not to lose sight of what he called “absolutely critical” military programs as they look to reduce defense spending. His list includes the new U.S. fighter jet, the F-35, more ships for the Navy, and investment in ground forces to help them recover from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In short, we have four months to get this done, according to Gates. One would hope the Obama administration and Congress will push to make it happen.
For Gates's part, it seems that he's been reading Kim and Fred Kagan, who recently wrote:
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....
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.