Obama in power (3): Iraq – not as clear as it first seems

Speaking last Friday at the US Marine Corps Camp Lejeune base in North Carolina President Obama announced a big reduction in US troop numbers in Iraq from 142,000 down to 50,000 by August next year, with all US forces out by the end of 2011. So he has made his intentions clear. Or has he?

The immediate commitment is clear. There is to be a change of terms – it is no longer an occupation force – and there will be a change of role – no more fighting after August 2010. And there is also a clear statement of intent to pull all forces out by the end of 2011. But that second part of the commitment is less unequivocal than it might seem, leaving more room for manoeuvre than the words indicate at first reading. That has been recognised almost across the political board in the US, and thus the Republicans are tending towards a welcome, but wish the President would acknowledge his predecessor’s achievements, while some Democrat comments have been a bit suspicious about the withdrawal pledge being watered down. So where does the room for manoeuvre lie?

First off, there is no reason to doubt the headline commitment: sharply cut forces by August 2010 and pull right out of the combat role. Apart from taking the man at his word there are many reasons why that commitment can be believed; one of them is called Afghanistan; another is called fear of US Army overstretch; a third is called the horrendous cost of Bush’s war; a fourth one is the political credibility of the still new President.

However, the strategic justification on which this is based is that the security situation is easing, allowing  the US to put more emphasis on achieving a political solution. But that is not as radical as it used to seem. It’s not yet the fashion to be fair to the Bush administration; when it is, then people will start to point out that this is the direction things were moving anyway. And though it will be necessary to remind them of the illegality of the war, its horrible human costs, and the Bush administration’s disastrous failure to think through what it would do after the invasion, they won’t be completely wrong.

The “surge” strategy initiated in 2007 was not primarily about more US troops; it was primarily about making coalitions with Iraqi militia in some of the most dangerous localities so they would take the fight on and suppress the forces that were threatening to destabilise the new dispensation and make it unworkable, forces that got close to persuading some commentators that the only remaining US choice was between humiliation now or tomorrow, or endless war. As soon as the surge started to work, the space was created for Iraqi politics to start working. The government seems stable and recent regional elections went forward peacefully and securely.

But what if the post-surge stabilisation is ephemeral? In 2005, apparently successful elections produced expectations of an imminent revival of real politics in Iraq, in the wake of which US forces could declare ‘ job done’. Instead, the fighting and killing escalated, minimum estimates of the death toll doubled to well over 2,000 a month for most of 2006, and the bottom fell out of the Bush administration’s credibility. Could that happen again in 2009 and into 2010? The government of Iraq and the US high command say no but, as the saying goes, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Some independent observers agree – but we’ll see. 

It will be the end of 2009 before we can firmly say whether today’s confidence in a more stable Iraq is fully borne out.

If it is not borne out, it is possible that the withdrawal will be slowed. It is also possible that a force larger than 50,000 might remain in place after August 2010. But what is most likely is that the “training and support” role of the residual 50,000 will turn out to include – under the heading of “support” – some pretty direct and muscular assistance to Iraqi government forces. A term like “support” today is as elastic as a term like “adviser” was in Vietnam in the early 1960s.

On the other hand, in the the more optimistic scenario, if today’s confidence still looks well-founded by the end of this year, there will be another two years in which Iraqi politics can pick up a clear-headed discussion about the desirability of the US forces fully leaving, or whether they should perhaps retain a strategic base in the country. With the heat off, that could be an interesting discussion and its outcomes might well surprise liberal and radical opinion in the US and Europe. It would not be surprising if concerns about Iran to the east and Syria to the west were to lead an Iraqi government that is no longer forced to tolerate the US presence into thinking it strategically advantageous to invite US forces to stay. Similarly, concerns about the potential for Kurdish separatism in the north and about a possible competition for influence within Iraq between Saudi-backed Salafist groups and Iranian-backed Shi’a groups might lead the government to welcome a great power’s physical commitment to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

And as for the US, were it invited to stay? From the perspective of the US strategic establishment, it would mean that the aim of having a major military presence in the Gulf Region would be fulfilled on a more reliable basis than has been possible so far; it had bases for a while in Saudi Arabia but had to leave and the bases in the smaller Gulf states have never looked particularly secure. There are some people who think that securing the US military presence long term was one of the real reasons for the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Thus far, the Obama administration’s strategic doctrines are not well articulated enough for it to be clear whether it would go with or against the desire sustained over the past two decades for the US to have a strong regional military presence. But the question is now on the table; it will be answered by the end of 2011.

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