By Paolo von Schirach
October 21, 2011
WASHINGTON – At this miserable time, Americans care about only one thing: the sputtering US economy and sky high unemployment. Iraq, only a few years ago an extremely high profile and very contentious issue, has now receded into near oblivion. For this reason, the October 21 announcement by President Barack Obama that all US troops will leave Iraq by the end of this year , according to existing agreements with the Baghdad Government, did not cause much of a stir. And President Obama could say with some justification that, by getting all US soldiers out by the end of December, he is fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise regarding the need to bring to a close the American military occupation of Iraq.
White House e-mail announces US withdrawal from Iraq as major success
In an e-mail many received from The White House, this is how Obama put it:
“I’m writing to tell you that all US troops will return home from Iraq by the end of December. After nearly nine years, the American war in Iraq will end. Our servicemen and women will be with their families for the holidays.
The war in Iraq came with tremendous cost. More than a million Americans served in Iraq, and nearly 4,500 gave their lives in service to the rest of us. Today, as always, we honor these patriots.
When I came into office, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. As Commander in Chief, I ended our combat mission last year and pledged to keep our commitment to remove all our troops by the end of 2011. To date, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops from Iraq…[…]“.
So, “Mission Accomplished“? This time for real? (We all remember the ill fated “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 displayed behind then president George W. Bush when he announced, a few years ahead of schedule as it turned out, the end of major combat operations in Iraq).
Well, yes and no.
“Status of Forces Agreement” negotiated by Bush not by Obama
What is remarkable in this announcement is what has been deliberately –in fact brazenly– left out. And these gigantic omissions confirm that the US president, even on foreign affairs, is talking politics, not policy. In his desire to be the bearer of good news for which he wants credit, he is not interested in presenting the complete context surrounding this announcement, including the fact that he did not want this outcome.
Let’s start from the most obvious omission. The Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA), whereby all US troops will be out of Iraq by the end of December 2011 was not negotiated by the Obama administration, as some might now believe. It was negotiated by the Bush administration and finally ratified by the Iraqi parliament on November 27, 2008. The Obama administration, whatever its position on the war in Iraq, simply inherited it.
No special merit in enforcing a treaty obligation
So, there is no special merit for Obama in carrying out the letter of a bilateral arrangement that committed the US government, no matter who is in the White House, to withdraw all US troops from Iraqi soil by the end of December 2011. But, instead, the spin here is that this all Obama’s doing. He promised the end of our commitment in Iraq and here he is delivering on his promise. The fact is that he had to do this, based on a pre-existing arrangement that committed the US Government.
Obama in fact wanted to keep troops in Iraq
But this is just the beginning. The really juicy stuff comes now, The SOFA allowed for changes in the withdrawal schedule, if both parties –the US and Iraq– agreed to it. And it is an open fact that the Obama administration –the people who absolutely wanted to bring all the troops home from Iraq– wanted to keep US troops in Iraq beyond the December 2011 deadline. And, to this end, Obama negotiated until the last minute with the Government led by Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki in Baghdad to obtain an amended SOFA that would have extended the US military presence there, albeit at reduced numbers. (Anywhere between 5,000 to 15,000 troops).
Fear that Iraq is still too weak
And why do that? Because (until today at least) it was the opinion of the US Government that the Iraqi Government, although a bit more solid and resilient, is still unable to take care of its own security. (Bombings and attacks against police and government targets, although less frequent, continue to this day). The thinking behind the desire to keep a substantial US military presence was that US troops in Iraq might have helped to discourage the rekindling of sectarian violence that might bring the country back into chaos.
In other words, the same Obama administration that is now hailing the final withdrawal of all troops from Iraq as a great success and as the logical fulfillment of 2008 campaign promises, actually did not want this outcome and tried to avoid it. It was only when it became clear that the Iraqi Government would not budge on the issue of granting legal immunity to US troops, that Washington finally gave up.
Now it is all about political spin
And now, in true political spirit, and entirely for the benefit of a somewhat distracted home audience, Obama calls this significant draw back –the failure to keep troops in Iraq for a longer period– a major victory. This way of characterizing what actually happened is at best disingenuous, at worst openly dishonest.
It is no secret that negotiations had gone on for quite a while to secure a continued US military presence in Iraq. But the fact that the president made zero mention of this fact in his announcement is worrisome. He is not leveling with the American people about the pitfalls of this unwanted outcome, probably counting on the fact that Iraq is no longer on the political front burner. This being the case, a bit of manipulation of the facts would go unnoticed. America would get the good news about the troops coming home for the Holidays and no one would ask any probing questions about the implications of this withdrawal. No, we do notice that we have not been told the entire story; and we do not like it.
With no US troops there, Iraq may become once again unstable
Let’s look at the actual implications of this withdrawal. The president tells us that we can all go home because our job is done. Iraq is now secure and capable of taking care of itself. But the open desire to keep troops there tells the opposite. It says that in fact Washington is not at all convinced that Iraq is safe. Iraq, while in much better shape than in 2006-2007 when descent into an all out civil war seemed inevitable, is better; but not well.
And many experts have expressed strong reservations on the wisdom of all US troops leaving. Of course, we do not know what will happen. Hopefully nothing. Hopefully after the last US soldier is gone, the Iraqis will manage to carry on and deal with any security threat, domestic or instigated by neighboring Iran, quite effectively.
President told only what makes him look good
Still, no matter what, the President only told the part of the story that made him look good politically: “I got all troops out of Iraq, as I had promised during the 2008 campaign“. This is a way to score points for a politician already in full re-election campaign mode. But it is not an honest way to inform the American public about a very complicated issue that has been at the center of US security policies for almost a decade.