Advancing a Free Society

Forgetting Iraq

Friday, October 21, 2011

Libya is finally free of Muammar Ghaddafi; and how fitting he met his end as Saddam Hussein did, cowering in a hiding place.  Both were despots that stole generations of promise from their people, perverting lives with their repression.  As Libya celebrates and begins constructing a free society, they have the friendship and assistance of the United States government.  That was Secretary of State Clinton’s message yesterday when she visited Tripoli.

Iraq once also had the help of the United States, but that time passed when Barack Obama came into office.  He campaigned arguing it was “the wrong war,” a waste of lives and effort, and promised to accelerate our departure; when elected, he did.  President Obama set August 2010 as the end of combat operations, and has made the departure of American forces before 2012 an absolute deadline.

The Bush Administration that negotiated the withdrawal agreement with Iraq viewed the deadline as symbolically important but politically fungible.  Ambassador Crocker and other administration officials considered it significant to show an end to our occupation, but they expected (with encouragement from their Iraqi interlocutors) as the deadline approached, it would be extended by the government of Iraq.

The deadline is even more salient in Iraqi politics now than it was in 2008, because as the Obama Administration drew back and allowed Iraq’s post-election deadlock to fester for seven months, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a deal with the virulently anti-American militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.  You may remember him from the Sadr uprising that American and Iraqi military forces had to beat into submission, first in Baghdad then in Basra.  He fled to Iran, but continued to have a significant political following that Maliki turned to for support rather than build a government of national unity with Ayad al-Alawi, the head of the other major political faction.

Maliki empowered Sadr and bought himself an excuse for policies that he had also supported -- like ending U.S. military presence, which he has advocated since 2005.  Among those Iraqis arguing for extending the deadline were:

  • the Iraqi military leadership, who have consistently argued they will not have the ability to defend their country without our help until at least 2015 and are comfortable working in partnership with the American military;
  • both Kurdish and Arab leaders in northern Iraq, who value the joint security mechanism set up by the American military and doubt their ability to prevent incidents escalating into major clashes without American involvement;
  • all of the political parties represented in the Iraqi parliament save Sadr.

In fact, Iraqi political leaders understand so well the value of our military presence that they agreed it ought to continue.  What they will not give is a law indemnifying our military from the reach of Iraqi law.  Such legal protections are commonplace in military status of forces agreements the U.S. makes.  What is novel about the Iraq case is the insistence by the Obama Administration that the commitment of the Prime Minister and his cabinet officials to the agreement would be inadequately binding.  Maliki offered the legal protections.  The Obama White House determined the agreement could only be valid if approved by the entire Iraqi parliament -- a threshold they either did or should have known was too much to ask.

As Senator McCain said of the Obama Administration today, “they lost many opportunities because of their failure to come up with a specific plan, strategy, as to how many troops we needed...and they fiddled while the Iranians and Sadrists increased their influence to the point where we are now in a deadlocked situation.”

The Obama Administration’s willful inattention to Iraq in the past two and a half years has compromised our ability to capitalize on the progress won by the American service men and women who gave their lives in Iraq.  It is a terrible way to repay that sacrifice.

(photo credit: dawnzy58)