Unfinished Business

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

President Obama has highlighted his achievement in ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq by the end of last August. Yet he declined to focus on the months-long political stalemate that followed elections in Iraq, other than saying it would have no effect on U.S. troops leaving, or the increase in violence to Iraqis.

The president should be clear about our continuing combat commitments in Iraq, reconsider the transfer to civilians some of the inherently military tasks our civilian mission in Iraq will require, and revise the security agreement with Iraq to provide for continuing presence of some U.S. military forces after 2011.

Obama’s argument that setting a deadline to end operations would force Iraqis to make hard political choices has proven false. Instead, the deadline disinclined Iraqi political leaders to compromise and diminished U.S. influence. This has significant implications for the Obama administration’s strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan (where the drawdown of that surge is arbitrarily set for July of this year).

In the speech last August at the Disabled American Veterans conference where he announced the end of combat operations in Iraq, Obama declared that “our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.” But our State Department lacks the capacity to scope or conduct a mission of this magnitude. It balked at the hundreds of tasks the military identified that would need to be transferred. Rather than define what needs doing and persuade Congress to provide the necessary resources, State defined the requirements down. When Congress refused even that level of funding, neither State nor the White House fought for the necessary resources.

To bring U.S. effort back into line with our equities as we conclude the war in Iraq, the president should make three crucial changes to his policies.

Setting a deadline to end combat operations made Iraqi political leaders uninterested in compromise while diminishing U.S. influence.

First, be straightforward that some combat responsibilities remain. The president has made it sound as though the only mission remaining for U.S. forces in Iraq after August 31, 2010, was training Iraqi security for-ces, but we are supporting as well as training Iraqis. That support extends to providing for Iraq’s air defense and conducting air operations, because Iraq has no air force to speak of. They are working towards self-sufficiency, but as General Shawkat Zebari, the head of Iraq’s security forces, has admitted, Iraqis will not be able to fully secure their country until 2020. General Ralph Baker, deputy commander of forces in central Iraq, also confirmed that timeline.

If the debacle of Clinton administration intervention in Somalia taught us anything, it is that one of the worst mistakes an American president can make in national security policy is to carry commitments without informing the American people. When the mission shifted from humanitarian assistance to fighting Somalian warlords, the president did not prepare Americans for the casualties that would occur when we became a party to the conflict. Obama is setting himself up for a similar crisis. Both Turkey and Iran have made military incursions into Iraq in the past several months; the Iranians have constructed a fort inside Iraqi territory. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States could provoke attacks on U.S. installations and allies in the region. The president needs to be clear that we will protect Iraq in these and other eventualities.

Second, reconsider full civilianization of the mission in Iraq. The State Department has five thousand civilians in Iraq, its largest deployment in the world. Fully half those State Department personnel are involved in providing security. Most are contractors. Even if equipped with Defense Department helicopters, mine clearers, and armored vehicles, the State mission will be consumed by providing security. Do we really want civilians undertaking these inherently military jobs? We need to build an integrated political-military strategy, not a strictly civilian one.

Third, make clear in public that we are open to renegotiation of the security agreement to assist the government of Iraq for as long as it seeks U.S. support. It would help stabilize the political machinations of Iraqis and others who would influence Iraq for us to be engaged beyond 2011.

If the Somalia debacle taught us anything, it is this: one of the worst mistakes an American president can make in national security policy is to carry commitments without informing the American people.

None of these changes would require major increases in our commitment to Iraq. None of them would be likely to increase the risk to U.S. forces, and they would reduce Iraqi casualties by stabilizing the fracturing political landscape in Iraq. Failing to achieve peace in Iraq will be all the more disgraceful because so little is now needed to help Iraqis stabilize their country in a way consistent with our interests.