After denying last week that the negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq were failing, the Obama Administration pivoted on Friday as President Obama announced that the U.S. troop presence would not be extended.
The President sought to turn a dangerous outcome for Iraq’s security and the war against terrorists into a political boost for his reelection campaign by declaring in a televised speech: “Today, I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.”
The rapid drawdown of the U.S. military presence will undermine U.S. security interests in Iraq by severely limiting bilateral U.S.–Iraqi cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and radical pro-Iranian Shia militias. The U.S. military pullout will also weaken efforts to contain Iran by leaving a partial power vacuum that Iran will exploit to expand its own influence.
There are now about 39,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, who are withdrawing at the rate of about 500 per day. Up until Friday, the Obama Administration had insisted that negotiations were on track for extending the presence of a small residual force that U.S. and Iraqi military leaders agreed were necessary to support Iraqi operations in key areas such as counterterrorism, air support, intelligence gathering, logistics, and training. But Friday, in a hard-hitting article posted on The Cable blog, Josh Rogin reported that the Administration had bungled the negotiations.
Rogin reported on a decision made by State Department lawyers to press for immunity for U.S. troops by going to Iraq’s parliament—a notoriously ponderous and fractious body—to negotiate an agreement rather than taking an easier path through Iraq’s Foreign Ministry by making U.S. military advisers part of the U.S. diplomatic presence. He quoted Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War, as criticizing the narrow political focus of the Administration’s Iraq decision making:
From the beginning, the talks unfolded in a way where they largely driven by domestic political concerns, both in Washington and Baghdad. Both sides let politics drive the process, rather than security concerns.
The New York Times reported that White House officials repeatedly clashed with professional military advisers on Iraq policy. Although the Pentagon had sought approval for a residual force of up to 10,000 troops, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough, prevailed over the Pentagon in internal Administration deliberations in August and reduced the size of the force to 3,000 to 5,000.
Negotiations with the Iraqi government stalled in part because Iraqi political leaders balked at taking political risks to approve an unpopular extension of immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops. It was clear to them that the Obama Administration was eager to exit Iraq and lacked the stomach to confront Iran, which has exerted growing influence over Iraq’s majority Shia political parties.
The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano concluded, “Now the Obama Administration’s policy for the Middle East is moving from leading from behind to watching from the sidelines.”
Key congressional leaders are also increasingly concerned about developments in Iraq. According to the National Journal, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R–CA) warned the Administration on Friday:
I remain concerned that this full withdrawal of U.S. forces will make that road tougher than it needs to be. Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity. These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq.
Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted the Administration:
The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.… The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq.… President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.
Last month, 42 conservative foreign policy experts wrote an open letter to President Obama expressing strong concern over the course of the negotiations. Given the ignominious collapse of the negotiations, there are sure to be more letters and scathing commentaries as the debate over Iraq heats up in the run-up to the presidential elections.