Advancing a Free Society

So much for leading through civilian power

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

According to the New York Times, the administration is reconsidering its commitment to maintain in Iraq the largest civilian mission the U.S. has ever attempted. Drawing down the U.S. mission in Iraq is the right choice. But while the Time's article attempts to cast the policy shift as the result of declining U.S. influence in Iraq, it is really more a story of incapacity by the State Department to scope, plan, and carry out diplomatic missions of the breadth and difficulty posed by circumstances in Iraq. Those circumstances are largely of the Obama administration's making, as they set arbitrary timelines for our military drawdown that exacerbated tensions within Iraq while ignoring Prime Minister's al Maliki's creeping authoritarianism.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review championed the mission in glowing terms: "In Iraq, we are in the midst of the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan. Our civilian presence is prepared to take the lead, secure the military's gains, and build the institutions necessary for long-term stability." None of those objectives has been achieved. It was an odd choice by the State Department to make Iraq the flagship of "smart power," given that the White House has consistently conveyed that President Obama just wants Iraq off the agenda. The president never invested in getting from Congress the resources necessary -- even if the State Department had the capacity to carry out its ambitious plans.

Nevertheless, the State Department's plan for maintaining two thousand diplomats -- protected and supported by 15,000 other civilian personnel -- was a terribly cost-ineffective program fraught with potential for disaster.

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