Friday, February 27, 2009

President Obama's Iraq Speech

President Barack Obama today announced that he would withdraw our combat brigades within the next 19 months, but leave a residual force of between 35,000 - 50,000 troops to train the Iraqis, and engage in "counter-terrorism operations" until they are required to withdraw in 2011 in accordance with an agreement made between his predecessor and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

"Let me say this as plainly as I can," President Obama said. "by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end." During the presidential campaign, the president said he would pull "combat" troops out within a 16 month period, but he also said he would consult with military leaders to see how to withdraw these troops more carefully then we got ourselves into Iraq.

Though the president said he would withdraw "combat" troops three months after he originally promised, he is, to his credit, pursuing a new, more realistic goal than the one offered by his predecessor. The president will fight for an "Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant with a "government that is "just, representative, and accountable."

Absent from the president's list was any prerequisite for a democratic Iraq. (Yes, one can have a "representative" Iraq that is not democratic and indeed, in some cases an undemocratic government can be more "representative" than a democratic one).

The intra-Iraqi diplomatic strategy Obama said, will be led by Ambassador Chris Hill. Mr. Hill presumably will facilitate discussions among Iraq's competing ethno-sectarian political factions including the ongoing dispute between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs over the Kirkuk oil fields and autonomy. Mr. Obama said his administration will serve as "an honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements." The president's diplomatic outreach will extend further by including the country's neighbors.

Mr. Obama's announcement has garnered himself the surprising support of the Republicans on the hill, most noteworthy among them his former rival for the White House, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) as well as some criticism from the Democratic Party and the liberal, anti-Iraq war activists who backed him over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary.

They would question why the president would leave 50,000 troops in Iraq if, as he himself own noted in his speech, that "we cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe," "stay until Iraq's union is perfected," or "sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military" while costing "the American people nearly a trillion dollars."

Victory can only be achieved diplomatically. An agreement on Kirkuk's political status and an agreement on the fair distribution of Iraq's oil revenues among Iraq's Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite factions alone can guarantee Iraq's stability.

The president said all "combat" troops will be withdrawn by August 31, 2010. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

No, the combat mission won't end on August 31, 2010, and the president is being disingenuous by suggesting that it is coming to an end. As long as American troops are assigned to engage in counter-terrorism missions or otherwise drawn into skirmishes with the Shiite militias, Kurds or Sunni insurgents, or as long as they are asked to assist in Iraqi military operations, our combat mission will not come to an end.

Ultimately the president will have to decide what the American response will be if, while we are withdrawing, Iraq's factions start the war against themselves or if the negotiations among Iraq's political factions prove unfruitful.

The president should be given some leeway to pursue this shift in strategy. Mr. Obama doesn't want to see Iraq break apart as he withdraws U.S. forces from Iraq and his team might prove themselves to be more effective at the negotiating table than Bush's team was. He did say it was his "intention" to abide by the agreement made by his predecessor and the Maliki administration. We, however, must hold the president to his word and insist upon a withdrawal by 2011 (should his "intention" change) since we cannot fight this war into the indefinite future for the very reasons he stated in his speech today.

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