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January 06, 2012

This Wacky Iraq Withdrawal Debate
Posted by David Shorr

Someone please explain to me like I'm a four-year-old this idea that President Obama "owns" the situtation in Iraq. As I work on catching up with some of the Iraq pull-out commentary from over the holidays, I won't try to match the depth of Steve Clemons' counterpoint to Fred and Kimberly Kagan's recent Weekly Standard piece. Instead, I'll direct some of the views I share with Steve toward engaging Peter Feaver over at Shadow Government and ploughing the ground Feaver stakes out: setting fair terms to judge the president's Iraq policy. His questoin is "Can Obama take credit for ending the Iraq War without taking blame for what happens next?" To which my answer is: "why the hell not?" 

Feaver cries foul on the attempt he sees by Obama supporters to give him full credit for anything positive in Iraq and saddle President Bush with everything negative. Well, what is the Obama Administration claiming to have done? President Obama claims credit for extricating American forces from nearly nine years of military involvement there.  By the way, can I pause for a moment to say how absurd it is to talk about a hasty exit after nine years?!?

But returning to Feaver's argument, he'd have a stronger point about taking responsibility for the bad along with the good if Obama was claiming credit having locked in a stable future for Iraq. Except that's not the claim. Like President Bush before him, the president has tried to use the US military presence to the best stabilizing effect for Iraqis and express gratitude and pride in the efforts of the those who served that mission. But how did all of this come about, and by what notion of fairness and responsibility do we treat the original act of invasion as water under the bridge?

As Feaver points out, there is also the issue of the administration's negotiations to keep a residual force in Iraq past 2011:

Besides, it is Bush's fault, the bitter-ender Obamaphiles say, because he saddled Obama with the 2008 framework agreement that  set the 2012 troop exit deadline.  Of course, to cling to this view requires ignoring that both sides, U.S. and Iraqi, viewed the 2008 agreement as an interim step, one that would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections to allow for a longer-term U.S. presence.  More problematically, it requires ignoring the lengthy but ultimately failed negotiations by Obama-appointed representatives to accomplish just such an extension.

But surely he can see the problems this poses for the conservative side of the argument--even the glaring contradiction right within that passage. I can count three ways in which this debate-within-a-debate only reinforces Obama's rightful credit for the Iraq withdrawal. First, if the 2008 SOFA agreement was merely a temporary placeholder that masked an actual plan to remain, then that only heightens the contrast with the administration's pull-out. Second, the loud cries from critics reinforce the idea that conservatives favor preserving more of a presence. (And oh by the way, the sabre-rattling over Iran perpetuates the image Republican appetite for military conflict and overextension.) More problematically, Feaver's argument requires ignoring the issue over which the SOFA re-negotiations faltered: immunity form prosecution for US personnel. After all the debate over the ICC, I can't imagine this would've been something conservatives could abide.

The divide in this debate is not over who's concerned about the situation in Iraq, or who feels an American sense of responsibility. Most of us do. This is a debate about the need to set limits and make choices about the right investments and engagements of American power -- and not imagine that those choices make themselves. 


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