Obama’s Iraq problems

Gen. David Patraeus, formerly head of international forces fighting Iraq,, now head of Afghanistan forces, greets President Obama in Iraq

Why the combat might not really be over

By Robert Dreyfuss

Let’s get the good news out of the way first. In President Obama’s Iraq speech last week, he said that the U.S. combat role in Iraq has ended and that Iraqis have “responsibility for the security of their own country.” He said that “all US troops will leave by the end of next year.” And he promised, once again, that U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan too, next July.

That’s about it. Now the bad news.

Most distressingly, Obama treated the war in Iraq as if it were a minor, tactical disagreement, rather than a fundamental, black-and-white difference between two irreconcilable views. “I am mindful that the Iraq war has been a contentious issue at home,” he said. “It is time to turn the page.” To underline the point, he mentioned that he’d telephoned former President George W. Bush before delivering the speech, though he mercifully spared us details of that conversation. Needless to say, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was a clear-cut, criminal war of aggression, making it far more than a merely “contentious” issue. 

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died for no good reason, and many thousands more are likely to perish as Iraq’s bitterly divided body politic settles its differences with guns and bombs over the next five or 10 years. Millions of Iraqi children have been traumatized beyond repair. By going into Iraq, the United States alienated its friends, weakened its alliances, emboldened its adversaries, blackened its reputation, squandered a trillion dollars, suffered tens of thousands of dead and wounded, utterly failed to spread democracy and freedom in the region, vastly strengthened Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and devastated a nation by shattering its economy, its state institutions and its very social fabric in a manner that will take at least two generations to repair. 

None of this seems to have occurred to President Obama, who wants to turn the bloody page.

Almost as distressing was Obama’s half-hearted reference to Bush’s vaunted surge. By now, in much of the mainstream media, it has become part of the catechism that the surge “worked,” that the addition of 30,000 combat forces in January 2007 resulted in a great success. (Obama, like many Democrats, liberals and some realist-minded Republicans, opposed the surge.) 

Here are the facts: Early in 2006, many Republicans knew that the war in Iraq was a disaster, and they wanted out, before the voters could express their disdain for Bush, Cheney and company at the polls in 2006 and 2008. The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, was created to nail down an exit strategy, and they did, proposing a yearlong timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. 

But the surge prolonged the war, which could have ended in late 2007 or early 2008, at the latest, by three more bloody, combat-filled years. Nor did the surge calm the crisis. The decline in violence, to the extent that it did occur, came for two intertwined reasons: first, because Sunni tribal leaders banded together to fight al Qaeda and other extremists; and second, because Iran made a strategic decision to rein in allied Shiite militias, halt the supply of IEDs and other weapons to its allies on the Shiite side, and convince Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite militant leaders to stand down, which they did.

The very agreement that Obama cited last night, which calls for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011, was the result of a deal struck between the United States and Iraq long before Obama’s election, and the only reason that the deal worked is because Iran, which opposed it at first, eventually acquiesced. Tehran convinced its many friends and allies in the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Maliki in 2008 to go along with the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal accord in order to weaken American influence in Iraq, and in that they have succeeded. 

Tehran also brokered an uneasy ceasefire between Maliki and Sadr in 2007, and it has worked hard, though without complete success, to strengthen its ties to the various Shiite and Kurdish factions that dominate Iraqi politics. Because of its proximity, Iran will continue to exert a gravitational pull on Iraq, which no longer has an effective army to defend itself against its larger neighbor. The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq — although the 50,000 that remain aren’t exactly unarmed — signals just another phase in the decline of American influence in Iraq.

What Obama failed to mention is that the next 16 months will be a severe test of his sincerity about withdrawal.

First, the centrifugal tendency of Iraqi politics may pull that country apart again, hurtling it back into civil war even as U.S. forces continue to draw down, and that will create great pressure on Obama at home to slow or reverse the withdrawal.

Second, Iran has many cards to play, and if U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate further, despite the apparent resumption of Iran’s dialogue with the world’s great powers later this month, Iran can use its muscle in Iraq to make life hell for the United States.

And third, the neoconservatives and proponents of the war — those inconvenient advocates of the illegal invasion of Iraq that Obama refuses to battle politically — are revving up demands that the United States settle in for the long haul in Iraq. As indicated by Paul Wolfowitz’s obscene op-ed in the New York Times recently, in which he compared Iraq to South Korea and suggested that tens of thousands of U.S. forces remain in Iraq indefinitely, the neocons want Obama to justify their outrageous decision to go to war in Iraq by preserving and extending a U.S. military role there for years to come. In Wolfowitz’s analogy, Iran plays the part of North Korea (and “Red” China), and they’d like nothing more that to use the continuing turmoil in Iraq to justify a South Korea-style U.S. presence.

Unfortunately, despite Obama’s words in pledging to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, he will find himself under enormous pressure to renege on that promise. And there’s precious little reason to believe that he won’t cave in to that pressure, particularly if Iraq devolves into civil war sometime in 2011.

Robert Dreyfuss is an investigative reporter and contributing editor at
The Nation magazine, where this story was originally posted.


It is necessary to separate fact from fiction regarding the announcement by the Obama administration that it is removing “combat brigades” from Iraq.

This is not the time for progressive people to pat themselves on the back, claim “victory” and pretend that the U.S. government is pursuing a different policy than that which was carried out by the previous administration.

Today’s announcement that renames the 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is nothing more than the rebranding of the illegal U.S. occupation of Iraq that began with the criminal invasion of the country by hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces on March 20, 2003. Let’s remember, the goal of the Bush administration, too, was not to keep a certain number of U.S. troops in Iraq forever, but instead to exercise U.S. domination over the country and the region.

The Obama administration has maintained the principal military and civilian leaders from the Bush administration. The withdrawal of some combat brigades from Iraq is essentially a redeployment exercise so that tens of thousands more U.S. troops can be sent to Afghanistan.

Since Bush left office, and contrary to the deep desire of the masses of people who constituted the electoral base for President Obama’s November 2008 victory, the U.S. military machine has grown, not diminished. The U.S. military budget has actually increased, not decreased.

The ongoing occupation of Iraq, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the increasing threats against Iran, and the enduring U.S.-Israeli war directed against the Palestinian people are all clear indicators that U.S. foreign policy and its military strategy are premised on the pursuit and maintenance of Empire regardless of whether the Democrats or the Republicans occupy the White House.

When he delivered his major address in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Obama described the war in Iraq as a “war of choice.” That is simply popular vernacular for a war of aggression. The reality of his position, however, was revealed today when President Obama actually called George W. Bush to confer with him in advance of tonight’s address on Iraq. Tonight, President Obama took the occasion to salute Bush as a “patriot” with “love of country and commitment to our security.” George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other high officials in the Bush administration should be indicted and prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq has shredded Iraqi sovereignty and “succeeded” in killing as many as 1 million Iraqis. The invasion and ongoing occupation has succeeded in ripping apart a once-united country. It is the U.S. invasion that stoked a sectarian civil war. It was a deliberate and conscious policy by the U.S. occupation forces to organize, finance and arm Iraqis along ethno-sectarian lines in order to weaken the nationwide resistance of the people against foreign occupation.

The thousands of organizers and volunteers who have worked with the ANSWER Coalition in organizing mass protests and nearly daily activities in cities throughout the country for the past nine years believe that the U.S. should end all of its foreign occupations, and that the people in Iraq and Afghanistan must have the right of self determination.

The struggle for jobs, social justice, equality and freedom at home cannot be separated from the international struggle against empire, colonialism and war. Last Saturday, Glenn Beck and the forces of right-wing racism tried to hijack the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the millions of people who fought, organized—including for some going to jail and giving their life—in the struggle against racism at home and war abroad. We must take note of the fact that the forces of right-wing racism and militarism are mobilizing throughout the country. Their demagogic attacks against the Obama administration are nothing more than a cover for their real agenda.

We in the ANSWER Coalition believe that it is imperative that all those in the anti-war movement, labor and civil rights movements and others come together in a massive mobilization on Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., for jobs, peace and justice. Only the mobilization of the people, and not the politicians, can radically change the political climate. When we march together on Oct. 2, we must raise high the banners of “U.S. out of Iraq now,” “End the occupation of Afghanistan Now” and “Money for jobs, schools, health care and housing, not war and occupation.”

A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition
National Office in Washington DC: 202-265-1948  Boston: 857-334-5084  New York City: 212-694-8720 Los Angeles: 213-251-1025    San Francisco: 415-821-6545

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