Obama and Iraq

As Americans bask in the historical victory of Barack Obama, and look forward to a new style of politics and a new direction for the country, GM stock is hitting 65 year lows, new jobless claims are at highs not seen since right after 9-11, and economic collapse that started in September continues apace, with no sign of a easy path out.  This is not a normal recession, this is far worse.

Yet even as we think about that, another chapter of recent history remains unfinished: the Iraq war.  The conventional wisdom is that the “surge” somehow put down the Iraqi insurgency, things are getting better, and the US is going to soon be able to leave.  It was a mistake, it cost far more than it was worth, we learned a few hard lessons, but at least it’s about to end.  Alas, that may not be the case.  Even now things in Iraq are precarious and the future is unclear.

Last June I wrote about the efforts of the United States to reach a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Iraq.  In that piece I wrote:

“So watch this issue! If the US gets a favorable SOFA and there is little or no effective opposition, this means less violence and a greater chance that the next President might choose not to leave Iraq quickly. On the other extreme, massive violence in Iraq could develop in protest to SOFA giving the US most of what the Bush Administration wants. This could also increase the risk things could escalate into a conflict with Iran. If no SOFA is signed and instead a short term agreement to allow troops there until a comprehensive agreement is reached, that’s a tacit victory for Iran, and will increase the pressure on the US to withdrawal. Finally, if an extremely watered down SOFA is signed which satisfies the Iraqi opposition, that likely is also a benefit for Iran, and would likely also signal a hastened US departure.”

I also noted that the US wanted the SOFA by the end of July, and definitely before the election.  Now that the election has passed, there is a tentative deal, still to be considered by the Iraqi parliament.  It is the last version, a watered down SOFA which satsifies the opposition in almost every way.   American soldiers remain immune from prosecution, but it provides a timetable for the US to leave, and takes out language that the Iraqi government could ask the US to stay longer.  That language was seen as a backdoor for the US to engineer a government ‘blank check’ asking for longer US military presence.   It’s been removed.

As noted above, even this watered down version reflects a victory for Iran.  But beyond that, it’s still not clear if it will pass, and the Iraqi Kurds are warning of civil war if it does not get signed.   If no agreement is signed, then the US will lose the right to have troops in Iraq by the end of December, meaning that unless some short term agreement is reached, the US will have a more rapid withdrawal.   In other words, what now seems like an “old issue” could become hot again.

How should soon to be President Obama handle Iraq?  The answer: Get out fast. Look, our economy is falling apart, the deficit is being exploded by bailouts and tax revenues are sinking.  We’ve spent five years trying to create some kind of democratic stability in Iraq, and if what they now have can’t last, then it’s beyond our means to fix.

So what if the US leaves quickly, and Iraq disintegrates into violence?  What does Obama say when a grave faced John McCain accuses him of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?  Answer: throw it back in his face.  How can we continue to throw American lives and billions of dollars in a time of economic crisis into an Iraqi black hole when even after getting rid of Saddam and engaging in the surge, they still can’t keep order without us?  At some point we have to realize it’s not our problem and leave.  At some point we have to recognize that our own house is on fire, and that gets first attention.

It sounds cold — many think we owe it to the Iraqis to “fix” Iraq because we “broke” it.  And, to be sure, we set a spark to a situation that has at least once exploded into an orgy of violence, and could do so again.  Yet that doesn’t mean we can fix it.  We haven’t fixed it yet, and if violence re-appears at an intense level, there is no proof that we won’t be doing more harm than good to stay.   Moreover, while President Ford did lose to Jimmy Carter in 1976, it wasn’t because the US refused to go back to Vietnam when the North invaded the South.  Once out of an unpopular war the public doesn’t want back in — if we leave Iraq and things go bad, Obama will not be hurt politically.

Moreover, staying in Iraq and trying to fix it sets him and the US up for multiple failures.  Obama will disappoint the anti-war activists who helped get him elected, and may find himself in the kind of no-win situation President Bush found himself in in 2005.  This would also hurt the US economy, risk destabilizing the Mideast, and undo the good will the election of Barack Obama has generated world wide.  Recall, the surge only worked because Iran decided it was worth letting the US find a way to leave Iraq gracefully.  The current SOFA, even if it’s sign, completely gives up on the goals of democratizing, westernizing, and creating a pro-American presence in Iraq.  The US won’t even dominate the oil industry.  Iraq will be essentially three zones, with danger of a civil war if the Shi’ite zone wants to dominate.   The best option probably was to divide the country in three a couple years ago, but it may now be too late for that.

Iraq is Obama’s first test.  Many conventional, establishment types (perhaps including his Vice President) will tell Obama to be cautious, not leave too quickly, and look out for US prestige.  Obama should reject that.  The economic stakes at home are too high, the potential gains by staying in Iraq are too low.  We need to as quickly and completely as possible extricate ourselves from that conflict.

Still, that doesn’t solve problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.  Each of those three states have problems that pose unique threats to US interests and regional stability.  I’ll write more on those in coming days and weeks.  But Iraq should be an easy call: we’ve done all we can, after the surge there isn’t much more we can do to try to help them.  We probably actually have hurt more than helped over the last five years, and it’s time to get out as quickly as feasibly possible.  If Obama does this, he’ll send a strong signal to the American public and the world that the times, they are indeed a-changing.

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  1. Afghanistan Dilemma « World in Motion

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