President Barack Obama announced late last week that all United States troops would be coming out of Iraq by the end of this year (with the exception of a very small contingent in the embassy) — exactly as President George W. Bush had agreed to, three years ago. Republicans, predictably, condemned the president’s decision. Not “the presidents’ decision” mind you, but just President Obama’s decision to follow the timetable for withdrawal that Bush originally agreed to.
While predictable, this reaction is absolutely ridiculous. Every single talking point the Republicans came up with on the subject shows their almost complete lack of understanding of the basic concepts of democracy — both here at home, and abroad. Which is why these points need refuting, one by one.
When we started the Iraq War, the ostensible reason for doing so — weapons of mass destruction — turned out to be non-existent. The Bush administration quickly shifted rationales, and our reason for invading became “regime change” and then “providing Iraq with a democratic government.” That last goal has been met, and it is what is causing all the problems now. If the United States had just installed our own puppet strongman, we wouldn’t have to deal with the messy realities of Iraqi democracy. Someone should remind the Republicans of this basic fact. We fought — and many died — to achieve democracy in Iraq. It disrespects that mission, and that achievement, to deny its realities now.
Let’s take a look at the Republican reactions to Obama’s announcement of a full withdrawal from Iraq — which will bring all the troops “home for the holidays.” None of them hold the slightest bit of rationality, or even basic understanding of the concept of democracy.
The Pentagon wanted to keep 15,000-20,000 troops in Iraq, indefinitely.
This one is the easiest to refute, because it makes no difference under the United States Constitution what the generals think. Our form of government assures civilian control — by the President of the United States — of our entire military. The generals have an advisory role, but that is it. They simply do not get to make decisions of this magnitude. Can anyone name me a single time, oh, since World War II perhaps, when the Pentagon wanted fewer troops in any foreign country? The generals always ask for more troops. Always. They’re generals — that’s what they do. That’s why we have civilian control, and not a military dictatorship, here in America — so elected officials make these decisions, and not the Pentagon brass.
Obama’s doing this for political reasons.
Actually, the reason this withdrawal date exists when it does was indeed a political decision. It was made by George W. Bush. But first, let’s hear Mitt Romney’s statement, which was released before Obama even made his announcement:
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. 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.
Here is how the “naked political calculation” actually happened, in late 2008. Our formal agreement with the new Iraqi government which legally set the rules for American troops to be on Iraqi soil had to be negotiated before the end of December, 2008. The previous agreement was to expire then, and so we needed a new “Status Of Forces Agreement,” (or “SOFA”). If you’ll remember, 2008 was an election year. Barack Obama had already won the election by the time the agreement was finalised and signed, but Bush was driven in the negotiations largely by the debate that was happening on the campaign trail between Barack Obama and John McCain. And the main turning point happened towards the end of the summer, when the American election was still up for grabs.
Obama’s stated goal in Iraq, as a candidate, was to withdraw all combat forces within 18 months. If he started immediately after he took office, this would have gotten them all out by late 2010. George Bush’s position mirrored John McCain’s: “timetables” were bad. Very bad. Dangerous, even. But Bush was losing control of the negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki — the clock was running out, and Bush began to cave on his demands (eventually, the SOFA would have almost none of Bush’s demands, and almost all of Maliki’s demands, before it was signed). Maliki offered up the following timetable for withdrawal: combat troops out by October, 2010, and all troops out some vague time in 2013 (no date in 2013 was ever reported). Bush didn’t like this one bit, because it was almost identical with Obama’s 18-month plan. So he pushed back — hard — on Maliki’s suggested date. First, he made a ham-handed attempt to change the definition to an “aspirational goal of a time horizon,” whatever that meant. Nobody bought it, least of all Maliki.
Bush then caved in to Maliki, and agreed to the following: all American troops out of Iraqi cities by the middle of 2009, and all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Please note, this was agreed to by Bush for purely political reasons. He could have gotten a better deal, if the objective (as it seems to be now, for Republicans) was to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as possible. He could have allowed troops to stay until 2013. He didn’t. He changed the agreement for two political reasons: it would look less like Obama’s 18-month plan, and it would (or so Bush thought) paint Obama into a corner at the end of 2011 — right before an election — instead of beyond the election in 2013.
So, yes, there were American politics involved in the decision America agreed to on when to leave Iraq. But none of the politics came from Barack Obama. Anyone who remembers the history of the SOFA negotiated by George W. Bush (which, apparently, doesn’t include a single member of the media) knows this.
Obama should have strong-armed Maliki into keeping some troops.
This is the loudest complaint, but is also the most bizarre. Because, once again, Republicans are simply denying the political reality of the situation. Because no Republican (at least, none that I’ve heard from yet) has an answer to the basic question: “What, exactly, would you have done differently than Obama?”
The closest was probably Senator Lindsey Graham (who isn’t even running for president and really should know better), responding to a direct question on Fox News Sunday about the fact that the Iraqis simply did not want us to stay:
The Iraqis were in my view open-minded to this. This was a failure by the Obama administration to close the deal. The military commander said we needed 15,000 to 18,000 and we have none. So, that’s the bottom line here.
At a time when we need troops in Iraq to secure the place against intervention by Iran and they had actors in the region, we are going into 2012 with none. It was his job, the Obama administration’s job, to end this well. They failed.
Here is Rick Santorum (a Republican who is running for president), less coherently but with more emotion, after Face The Nation host Bob Schieffer asked him about the “scathing” response most Republicans had had to the news of Obama’s announcement:
Well, I get — you know, the reason it was scathing, Bob, is because of the just exactly that –the fact that we have a president who is not able to set conditions and to actually have the kind of influence over the Iraqi government. Now three years the president has had to — to work with the Iraqi government to try to mould and shape that relationship. And to be in a position where really the Iranians now have more sway over the Iraqi government than the United States just shows the weakness of our — our diplomatic effort, the weakness of this president, in being able to shape the battlefield if you will. And I think that’s the reason people were so upset that, you know, we’ve lost — in many respects we’ve lost control and lost the war in — in Iraq, because we have Iran having broadened its sphere of influence. And we see what’s — what’s going on.
We’ll get to Iran in a moment, but let’s examine this basic premise, because it makes painfully apparent that Republicans simply do not understand the basic concept of democracy. What Santorum is calling for is an American puppet government. There are no two ways about it.
But Iraq is not a puppet. It is a democracy. We forced this democracy upon them at the barrel of a gun — remember? This was the ultimate goal in Iraq, according to (once again) George W. Bush — a democratic form of government. The only problem with a democracy is, as I said, it’s messy. It’s a lot easier to deal with a dictator than it is a parliament.
There’s a clear parallel to be drawn (which nobody else seems to be drawing) in the legislative problem Obama and Maliki faced with the Iraqi parliament, and the recent failure of Obama and John Boehner to agree to a “grand bargain” during the debt ceiling debate. The parallel is solely on the legislative manoeuvring, and not on either issue, I should say (to clarify — I’m not equating any actor or political group with any other, here, just talking about the process itself).
Obama and Boehner were said to have gotten very close to coming up with a grand bargain on raising the debt ceiling which would have cut trillions from the federal budget in the future. Speaker of the House Boehner then went back to his party’s caucus in the House and tried to sell them on the deal he had struck with the president. They said “no” in unequivocal terms. The Tea Party Republicans weren’t going to vote for any such plan, and they let Boehner know this. So no deal was, in the end, possible.
Obama and Maliki were in a similar bind. Both wanted a few thousand troops to remain in Iraq. But the political reality in Iraq was the deciding factor. Because any new SOFA would have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament. Which was problematic, because in the last election Maliki’s party did not win an outright majority. This meant they had to form a “coalition government” with another party. This turned out to be Muqtada Al Sadr’s party. That’s what kept Maliki in his job — and that’s what can remove him at any time with a “vote of no confidence” (assumably, this is a regular feature of parliamentary governments). Maliki and Obama hammered out the best deal either side thought they could get (Obama lessened the request to 3,000-5,000 troops), but Maliki went to the Sadrists and they told him “nope, sorry, we’re not granting any American soldier immunity from Iraqi law past the first of next year.”
This is the true political reality of the negotiation (again, I am not equating the Tea Party Republicans with Sadrists in any way shape or form, merely commenting on the mechanics of the political power struggles, to be absolutely clear). What American general would ever consent to put troops into a supposedly-friendly country without an immunity guarantee? I would be willing to bet the Republicans can’t find one sitting general who would agree to such a thing, or recommend it to the president.
It wasn’t Maliki who needed convincing — it was Sadr. And Sadr had already intimated that he would reactivate his “Mahdi Army” militia and attack American soldiers if they weren’t gone on the SOFA schedule. Making it impossible to conceive that he would ever agree to any American troops in Iraq next year.
So, the question remains for someone making the argument that Obama could have magically “closed the deal” with the Iraqis (which completely ignores the fact that Iraq is now a democracy): “What, exactly, would you have done differently? How, exactly, would you have convinced Sadr to allow American troops to stay, or how else could you have gotten the Iraqi parliament to agree to such a thing?”
To answer these questions is to admit the reality of democracy in Iraq — our supposed final goal, that virtually every Republican seems to have forgotten about. They’re supposed to make their own minds up about big political questions like this. That is the definition of victory that we’ve been striving for all along (or, at least, since the rationale began, after those pesky WMDs failed to turn up). To deny Iraq’s right to kick us out is to deny our victory in Iraq, in other words.
Iran will influence Iraq if our troops leave.
This sounds like a very damning thing, but it is patently ridiculous. Not the idea that Iran will have a certain degree of influence over Iraq, but the idea that having a few thousand U.S. troops on the ground is going to change this in any way whatsoever.
Iran was always going to increase their influence in Iraq — from the very first decision to go into Iraq. Our timetable for withdrawal, at this point, makes not the slightest bit of difference to this dynamic. Avoiding this reality would have meant one of two drastic and unacceptable outcomes: either make Iraq a permanent U.S. territory with full American control, or install our own strongman as our puppet. But creating a democracy in Iraq meant — by definition — that various different divisions of Iraqis would have a voice in their own government. Again, this is not rocket science — it comes directly from the definition of democracy itself.
Sadr’s political power is often pointed to as evidence of this Iranian influence. He may be closer to Iran than any other prominent Iraqi politician, and he holds a significant bloc of votes in the Iraqi parliament. So Iran wields influence in Iraqi politics, it is true.
But Iraq (at least, not so far) is not an Iranian “satellite” or “client state” by far. Sadr’s party isn’t the biggest or even the second-biggest party in their parliament. And there are two very important points to make, here, which both stem from a very basic statement: Sadr is part of the Iraqi government. Because he is, he is not waging civil war. Secondly, his party has been part of the Iraqi government for quite some time, now.
This is what democracy is all about, folks. Ballots instead of bullets. Voting instead of fighting each other in the streets. Does America approve of every single Iraqi politician? No. Do we have veto power over which politicians the Iraqis elect? No, we do not. Should America be glad about this outcome? Well, if you believe democracy can work in the Middle East, then yes, yes we should.
Whether the Iraqis choose to align themselves closer with Iran than with us is entirely up to them, at this point. This point, by the way, is exactly what all those brave Americans fought and died for, according to the last rationale for the war itself. Iran has had influence over the Iraqi government ever since Sadr came in from the cold — but that has nothing to do with how many troops remain. Sadr was in the government while our first major drawdown was accomplished. He was in the government while we were negotiating a possible SOFA extension, and he influenced the outcome. He will be in the Iraqi government next year — whether there are 3,000 or 15,000 or zero American troops there.
Iraq has no gratitude, and we are being kicked out ignominiously.
Michele Bachmann, another Republican candidate, admitted what really bugs the Republicans, though. They’re still waiting to be greeted as liberators, it seems. It’s the sheer ingratitude of Iraq to not do exactly what we want them to do, in other words. Here is Bachmann on the subject, (again from Face The Nation yesterday):
“… the United States has expended 40-four hundred lives over eight hundred billion dollars in toil and blood and treasure. And while we’re on the way out, we’re being kicked out by the very people that we liberated. … to think that we are so disrespected and they — they have so little fear of the United States that there would be nothing that we would gain from this, that’s why I’ve called on President Obama to return to the negotiating table. The — the Obama administration has said they’ve gotten everything they wanted. They got exactly nothing. I believe that Iraq should reimburse the United States fully for the amount of money that we have spent to liberate these people. They are not a poor country. They’re a wealthy country. … But again we are there as the nation that liberated these people. And that’s the thanks that the United States is getting after 40-four hundred lives were expended and over eight hundred billion dollars? And so on the way out, we’re being kicked out of the country? I think this is absolutely outrageous what’s happened. And I think President Obama clearly is not respected. The United States is not respected. And the President has been a failure when it comes to foreign policy.
Well, yes. We are being kicked out. By a democratic government that is strong enough to stand up to the United States of America. That, by any definition of democracy, seems to be a success, regardless of the bad taste it seems to have left in Bachmann’s mouth.
This entire argument boils down to: “They should have thanked us more, and continue to allow us to do whatever we want.” But that’s not democracy — that is a puppet or a client state.
The public will have the final word
What I found astonishing in all of this is that American public opinion was barely mentioned. Granted, the announcement’s timing has meant that there has not been time to conduct a poll of how the public feels about Obama’s announcement, but I’d be willing to bet a large amount that the public is going to be pretty OK with the idea of ending one of America’s wars for good. Which is, after all, the way things are supposed to work in a democracy — eventually, the people decide important issues such as these on their own, no matter what the politicians tell them to think.
In fact, I’d even be willing to make a prediction — when the polling does come in, showing overwhelming support for Obama’s withdrawal plan, Republicans are going to stop talking about it. They are not likely to win this struggle to influence the public’s opinion, and they likely already know it. They are betting that Iraq will fall apart immediately after our troops leave, and if this does happen they will loudly proclaim “We told you so!” — but if it does not, they’ll just never mention the subject again.
Or maybe they’ll even start giving George W. Bush all the credit for the withdrawal. Maybe they’ll wake up and remember that Bush was the one who signed this withdrawal timeline into existence, three years ago. That’s much safer ground for Republicans to trod, after all, than either giving President Obama credit for anything, or for admitting they were wrong.
Every current Republican gripe on the Iraq withdrawal boils down to a monumental refusal to face the reality of a full-fledged Iraqi democracy. Iraq has a democratically-elected government, and like all such, it is beholden to the public’s opinion. If the Iraqi public opinion shifts later on, perhaps America will send a few thousand troops back, to train the Iraqi air force and provide other technical assistance. But the decision to invite U.S. troops back in will be theirs. That is how democracy works. It is also, by George W. Bush’s definition, success in our prime mission in Iraq. Making a deal — any kind of deal — with Iraq means not just conducting talks with Maliki, it also means the Iraqi parliament has a say in the matter. Which is, supposedly, what we were fighting for all along.
Mission (to coin a phrase) accomplished.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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