February 28, 2009

Obama's Plan for Iraq ... and how we got there

Okay, enough navel-gazing. It's one thing for U.S. television news bureaus to ignore the Iraq War, but when we here at a blog "dedicated to following issues related to contemporary insurgencies" start ignoring Iraq when major policy shifts are announced, that's pretty sad.

Yesterday, Barack Obama announced a plan to cease combat operations in Iraq within 19 months and was, as expected, roundly assaulted from the Republican Party. No, wait.

During the presidential campaign, John McCain argued that imposing a deadline to remove combat troops from Iraq was tantamount to accepting defeat in Iraq.

It is a measure of how much has changed over the past six months that Mr McCain is now one of the chief cheerleaders for Barack Obama's plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by August 2010.

First off, good for John McCain. Second, good for the Republican Party. And third, good for Barack Obama. During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was a lot of disagreement both within and between the two parties as far as Iraq was concerned. On the right, a group (often led by a member of the Kagan family) continued to insist that all the major decisions made in Iraq remained made by Americans and not Iraqis. In my view, this school was oblivious to the fact that by 1 January 2009, the U.S. had to either renew our mandate with the United Nations -- which would have meant Christmas for the Chinese and Russians, assuming they would have played ball -- or negotiate a SOFA agreement with Iraq. The latter meant an irreversible shift of power in Iraq from American to Iraqi policy-makers. Just negotiating a SOFA put power in the hands of the Iraqis.

On the left, meanwhile, a sizable portion of the Democratic Party continued to insist upon a more or less immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The most intelligent case for such a withdrawal was made by the Center for American Progress (CAP) in a series of policy papers. The problem with this school of thought, I have argued, is that it ignored the very real security gains made in 2007 and 2008. So what might have been a pretty good argument in 2006 was anachronistic by 2008.

In the middle, meanwhile, was a more cautious approach advocated by former-friend-of-the-blog-before-he-became-important Colin Kahl and his friends at my new home, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). This debate was often moderated by Marc Lynch on his blog Abu Aardvark, with Marc himself tending to agree more with Brian Katulis and CAP than with Kahl and CNAS.

One of the nastiest -- and most correct -- criticisms a supporter of the CAP plan could have leveled at Colin during this time was to ask, "So how does your plan differ in any way from George Bush's?"

The answer to that question was, "Well..."

Because as Tom Ricks and others have noted, the Bush Administration faced up to reality in Iraq following the 2006 midterms, appointing a new team in Baghdad, authorizing the surge, and replacing some of the old crew at the NSC with a new team led by LTG Douglas Lute. So by 2008, a kind of middle-of-the-road consensus had developed in Iraq between centrists on either side of the U.S. political divide. Democrats like Colin suddenly had a lot in common ideologically with both commanders on the ground and policy-makers in the White House.

Yesterday's speech by that Kenyan feller with the funny name who apparently now runs things around here was evidence of the triumph of the center on Iraq. Harry Reid is not going to be happy. Nancy Pelosi is not going to be happy. And some on the right will continue to be frustrated, not understanding that it is now Iraqis -- not Americans -- who hold the keys to that country's future.

But as the Financial Times -- my favorite newspaper -- argued today, it is indeed Iraqis who control the future of that country. Perhaps one of the reasons we counter-insurgents have shifted focus away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan is because we understand that even the best counter-insurgency strategy can only set the conditions for political reconciliation in third-party interventions such as Iraq and Afghanistan. What the Iraqis do from here on out matters more than anything said or done in Washington. And that, in the end, is how it damn well should be.

1. Obama's speech yesterday, unedited.
2. Obama's interview yesterday with Jim Lehrer (former Marine), unedited.
3. A frankly hilarious account of dancing paratroopers in Baghdadi nightclubs. (This may be what "victory" looks like.)