Loose Canons

Are We Staying in Iraq?

What's behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates's pleas to Iraqi leaders last week?

By 4.11.11

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What's behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates's pleas to Iraqi leaders last week?

Gates, visiting Iraq to meet with government officials, said not once but twice that American forces could stay in Iraq past the end of 2011, which the Bush-negotiated Status of Forces agreement established as a firm withdrawal date.

Talking to troops in Baghdad, Gates said: "I think there is interest in having a continuing presence, but the politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis." He added later that, "If folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning."

In meetings with Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish leader Barzani, Gates reportedly urged them to determine how much -- and what kind -- of American forces they needed beyond this year.

It's as if America were Iraq's crazy old uncle, invited for Thanksgiving dinner, staying through St. Paddy's Day and then begging to stay by threatening to go home. What is Obama up to?

As with everything else Obama does, it's a political calculation. And, like Obama's brief "kinetic military action" over Libya, it's a comprehensively bad idea.

Obama doesn't want Iraq to fall apart on the eve of the November 2012 election. He's looking at the fact that since 2006, when Nouri al-Maliki became Iraq's prime minister, the progress of "nation-building" in Iraq has stalled. Thanks to the 2007 U.S. troop surge into Iraq, and the relentless action of Special Forces Command in hunting down terrorist leaders and operatives, terrorist violence was nearly eliminated. But the process of developing a working government for Iraq didn't progress to the point at which the Maliki government can provide security and basic government services across the nation.

As soon as U.S. forces depart, the lack of security will affect everything political and economic in Iraq.

Maliki came to power in 2006 with the help of his co-religionist, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had fled to Iran about two years earlier, seeking refuge from anti-terrorist forces trying to enforce a murder warrant that charged him with the killing of a rival. As a source e-mailed me in 2004 when U.S. troops were trying to catch al-Sadr, "Look what is happening now to Al Sadr and his radical followers. Why [was] Al Sadr not arrested from day one? He killed Abdul Majid Al-Khoie [a leading Shiite cleric who favored peace] in Najaf, established his own courts, intimidated even Al Sistani, and [yet was] left alone.... As if, if you leave bad guys alone they will leave you alone."

Al-Sadr is now back in Iraq, closely allied with Tehran, and threatening that his militia will attack U.S. forces if they don't leave this year.

And, with the government's failure, economic development of Iraq also stalled. Though oil exports have increased to about pre-2003 levels, the revenue gains mask the fact that there is still no overall legal structure to share oil revenue among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish groups that comprise the vast majority of Iraqi constituencies. The failure to reach agreement on revenue-sharing creates a political time bomb that will go off when U.S. forces aren't there to provide the appearance of stability. Other economic development and foreign investment are thwarted by Byzantine regulations and corruption.

Economic and political stalemate in Iraq works to Obama's benefit: he doesn't want to be accused of losing Iraq in 2012. What happens afterward is of no political consequence to him. Thus the Gates initiative to plead with Iraqi leaders to ask our forces to stay.

Libya doesn't prove that Obama has suddenly acquired a taste for war. In fact, Gates's plea to Iraqi leaders, the half-measures in Libya, and events in Afghanistan prove Obama's taste for stalemate.

Libya shows the danger of Obama's strategy. To stalemate an enemy requires sufficient force -- kinetic or political or both -- to prevent the enemy from obtaining a stalemate-breaking advantage. Gaddafi isn't cooperating and the Libyan rebels are so disorganized, untrained, and ill-equipped that their rebellion can't last longer than Gaddafi's forces have the ability to attack.

In Afghanistan, U.S. abandonment of key areas such as the Pech Valley to the Taliban reinforces the enemy's long-term will to win. But Obama apparently plans to fine-tune the commencement of withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer to the decreasing cooperation from the Karzai government and the Zardari regime in Pakistan. With that fine-tuning, U.S. troops will continue to fight, and some will die, so that the Taliban won't be able to sufficiently break the stalemate to bring down the Karzai government in 2012. The Afghanistan stalemate can be maintained at least until the U.S. election is over.

If the Iraqi stalemate can be extended past November of next year, it also won't interfere in Obama's re-election plans. The question is whether -- given Moqtada al-Sadr's restored military power -- the stalemate can be maintained.

So, inevitably, we come to the point at which Obama's political calculations coincide with the Bush-Powell-Tenet nation-building strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies, especially Moqtada al-Sadr's Iranian bosses, aren't fools. They understand that the president wants to keep the war off the front pages and television screens so that it won't interfere with his political message. They understand that -- given the president's preference for stalemate and plans for withdrawal -- that eventually the stalemate will be broken in their favor.

Obama's stalemate strategy, and his manipulation of the war to achieve media inattention to it, will probably succeed because the likely Republican presidential candidates will let him get away with it.

None have, at this writing, evidenced the courage to tackle Obama head-on on the budget by endorsing Paul Ryan's new budget. That would require an ideological dedication that they apparently lack. It will take even greater ideological dedication to confront Obama's stalemate strategy in the war. Who among them will stand up to say that the nation-builders are wrong, and that stalemate is not a goal?

It's just as my source wrote almost seven years ago: Why do we think -- almost a decade after 9-11 -- that if you leave bad guys alone they will leave you alone? The bonfire of the neocons continues to blaze.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.