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August 04, 2009

That Pesky SOFA
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at TNR's The Plank Michael Crowley has a post up about the future of Iraq and what President should do if tensions boil over there into ethnic and sectarian violence:

If Iraq does seem to be headed back towards chaos as U.S. troops withdraw, what will Obama do? It's hard to say for sure. During the campaign, he was tonally emphatic about ending America's commitment there. But he has always allowed for revisions based on the judgment of his commanders. It's awfully hard to imagine that surge architect David Petraeus would be willing to watch his gains there disappear in a maelstrom of car bombs and sectarian assassinations. If Petraeus says we need to maintain a substantial troop committment, will Obama defy him?

Over at the LA Times, Barbara Walter makes a similar argument:

The U.S. shouldn't fool itself into believing that it can get peace and stability in Iraq without committing significant military and nonmilitary resources to Iraq well beyond 2011.

What goes unmentioned in both pieces is the simple fact that whether the US stays in Iraq - and how Obama responds to increasing levels of violence - is out of our hands. In 2008, the United States signed a binding legal agreement with a sovereign Iraqi government that governed the status of forces in Iraq (the SOFA).  Under that agreement United States Forces must be out of Iraq, "no later than December 31, 2011." Any changes to the SOFA must be negotiated with the Iraqi government.

Now there have been rumblings of late from Prime Minister Maliki that US troops may stay beyond 2011, and of course the US government can advocate for staying longer, but all these discussions about whether the US should stay or go - and the choices that Obama supposedly has to make -- are irrelevant. It's not our call. If the Iraqis want us to stay - and we decide that it's in our interests - we can stay. If they want to us to stick to the withdrawal timeline that we agreed to, then we go. End of story. No matter how bad things get in Iraq. If we're going to talk about Iraq's "future" it's important to at least recognize that the Iraqis themselves get a vote. In fact, they get a veto.

One other point that Crowley makes is also worth addressing, "It's awfully hard to imagine that surge architect David Petraeus would be willing to watch his gains there disappear in a maelstrom of car bombs and sectarian assassinations. If Petraeus says we need to maintain a substantial troop commitment, will Obama defy him?"

Excuse me? You know it's been a while since I studied civil/military relations but President Barack Obama acts in defiance of no man or woman in uniform. They follow his orders - seeing as he is commander-in-chief and all.

I don't mean to pick on Crowley but this slip is indicative of an ongoing erosion in civil/military relations. In 2004, you had General Petraeus wading into domestic politics by writing an op-ed supportive of President Bush's policy in Iraq on the eve of the general election; you had Bush and Senator McCain basically saying that decision-making about troop levels would be made by Petraeus, as opposed to his civilian bosses. Right now in Afghanistan we're seeing a ramping up of a counter-insurgency mission that stands in sharp contrast to President Obama's statement on Af/Pak policy in March. And in perhaps the most underreported example, you had Jim Jones statement that no more troops would be going to Afghanistan undermined a mere ten days later by leaks from Gen. McChrystal that more troop requests were on the way. Granted these are somewhat disparate examples, but they point to the far more public role that military leaders are playing in national security debates - and often at the expense of civilian leadership.

So all this is to say that General Petraeus may oppose President Obama's Iraq policy - and one would hope that in private he would tell him so - but the notion that the President would "defy" his top general is sort of mind-boggling.


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Nice post. I especially like your second point, and I agree that the civil-military political dynamics are becoming way too blurred. Adding to the confusion, it seems to me that leaders on both sides (civil and military) are constantly "waiting on ongoing reviews" before coming out with a statement on a given strategic or even tactical issue.

I don't like it. Obama needs to man up and remind our brave warriors that they operate at his discretion and in the narrow strategic interests of the United States. I'm sure the military would like to really "solve the problem" of Afghanistan and make everything over there all better (same with Iraq) but unless we're willing to actually invade and colonize these places, we're not going to be able to change them very much. We need to do what we went there to do (remember that bin Laden guy?) and get the hell out.

tenk u admins. good msj

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