Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tell Me Now if You Want Me to Stay, It Don't Matter, 'Cause I'd Stay Here Anyway

Commenting on a blog post by Tom Ricks, Andrew Sullivan makes some statements that I agree with, and others that I want to quibble with:

It seems to me that by vowing to get out of Iraq in 16 months, President Obama is not departing from the mistakes of George Bush, but repeating them. That is, Bush was persistently overoptimistic about Iraq. His original war plan assumed that the United States would get down to 30,000 troops in Iraq by the fall of 2003. Instead, here we are more than five years later with more than four times that number of troops mired in Iraq. I hope we can stop planning for Iraq only on best-case assumptions.

I echo Ricks' point. The assumption that somehow the Iraq war is over seems very cocky and premature to me. I still do not see how we can disengage meaningfully without triggering a sectarian blood-bath. The surge, in retrospect, my come to be seen as the moment that the Iraq imperial venture became part of our lives and a drain on our wallets for ever. You watch what happens if Obama actually does what he has promised. Empire has its vested interests - and they will resist.

First, we agree that the Iraq was is not over. US soldiers are still being killed at a rate of one every other day - which is an improvement as experienced over the past eight months or so. However, in the opposite direction is a trend upward of suicides committed by soldiers - a phenomenon that even Admiral Mullen concedes is likely exacerbated by the lengthy and repeated tours required by our ongoing presence in Iraq. Similarly, Iraqi civilian and security forces deaths from political violence have dropped to the still horrific average of about 300 a month over the same eight month period (with even steeper drops in January and, thus far, February). So, no, the war is not over as much as it's been brought to a lower level of intensity in many regions of the country (less so in the increasingly volatile north).

We also agree that the vested interests of empire will resist efforts made by Obama to disentangle our involvement in Iraq, yet Sullivan is remiss by failing to point out that Tom Ricks - whose words he excerpts to make his point - recently penned a book that is effusive in its praise of a couple of empire's champions (at least in this context:) General Odierno and General Petraeus.

Over the past several weeks, Odierno and Petraeus have been waging a rather unseemly media battle against the ostensible Commander in Chief over the future of US policy vis-a-vis Iraq. In Ricks' book, and subsequently, he echoes the Odierno/Petraeus line that we need to maintain 30-40,000 troops in Iraq until at least 2015, and that we can't risk pulling out sooner. Sullivan, for his part, seems resigned to this timeline - and its extension indefinitely into the future - despite the "drain on our wallets."

However, what Petraeus, Odierno, Ricks and (to a lesser degree) Sullivan seem to be ignoring is that certain Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) entered into by the US and Iraqi governments this past summer, which committed the US to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 (with an earlier timeline for removing troops from Iraq's cities). Further, their discussion of alternative timelines completely ignores the national referendum to be held on the SOFA in Iraq in July of this year (the referendum is thought to have been required by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who insisted that the SOFA must have broad support to receive his ultimate blessing). If Iraqi voters reject the SOFA in the referendum, US forces would have a twelve month timeline for withdrawal starting from that date.

Which brings me to the political context of this talk of timelines that range beyond the parameters set forth in the SOFA. As many commenters, including myself, noted, the recent Iraqi elections signified positive trends in the direction of nationalism/centralization and away from sectarianism/federalism. Prime Minister Maliki's party was able to capitalize on its increasingly nationalistic rhetoric (and policies) to garner considerable gains in many Shiite regions, as well as Baghdad (though the latter has largely been converted into a Shiite stronghold via sectarian cleansing regardless).

In fact, Maliki's turn to nationalism enabled his party to increase its stake at the expense of the Sadrists, who had previously been the strongest voice on such matters. One such nationalist position that cemented Maliki's nationalist bona fides was his hard bargaining on the SOFA, during which he demanded a firm timeline for withdrawal. Maliki's strong showing - and the poor performance of the most committed sectarian parties (ISCI) - was touted as a victory for the US and Iraqi interests in almost every major periodical, from the New York Times to the Washington Post. In terms of the trends mentioned above, it certainly was a welcome development.

Now back to all this loose talk about keeping troops in Iraq beyond the SOFA's imposed deadline. Again, there is a national referendum on the SOFA scheduled for July, and such statements from high ranking officials (and media figures) suggesting that the US would - or even could - simply ignore the obligations set forth in the SOFA could tilt the vote against approving that agreement. Such a "no" vote would trigger a twelve month timeline for withdrawal, adhering to which require a more harried and expensive pace than that required by the full duration of the SOFA.

Further, there are national elections scheduled for December this year, and undercutting Maliki just as his political coalition - one that our leaders claim to support - is gaining momentum by pushing for prolonged occupation outside the scope of the mutual agreement between ostensible sovereigns would only empower more hostile elements in Iraq's political firmament (such as the Sadrists whose support Maliki preempted by tacking toward the nationalist side).

Rather than delaying the commencement of withdrawal under the theory that we can, or should, ignore the SOFA, the US should put a downpayment on withdrawal by beginning the pullout now as suggested by Marc Lynch for the following reasons: (1) it would reassure the Iraqi people of our intention to leave Iraq, which would make the SOFA more palatable; (2) it would strengthen Maliki's hand, and the hand of those advocating nationalism/centralism without giving in to the extremist of some of the Sadrist elements; and (3) even if such overtures do not convince the Iraqi people to endorse the SOFA, withdrawal over 12 months will be easier to accomplish if we've already begun to pull out some of our forces.

But this notion that we can talk beyond the Iraqi government and Iraqi people, and act as if they are bit players in our drama whose autonomy and sovereignty is to be considered only in passing, were the real "big mistakes" of the Bush administration - to use Ricks' words.

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