Friday, 4 July 2008

Obama’s Iraq Problem

From the current issue of The New Yorker, an opinion piece by George Packer: Obama’s Iraq Problem.

The problem of the title is that when Barack Obama declared his candidacy in February 2007, he had made a big bet on failure in Iraq. He had argued for all US troops to be pulled out by March 2008. But with the surge the opposite policy was pursued and, as reported in the New York Times, violence in Iraq is now at its lowest level since March 2004. Though the war is not over, change and hope in Iraq have come to threaten Obama's credibility.

Obama increased his stake on failure in his Iraq policy speech in September 2007. Just two days after General Petraeus reported to Congress on progress due to the surge, and warned of the dangers of more rapid troop reductions, Senator Obama reasserted his point of view that “we need to immediately begin the responsible removal of our troops from Iraq's civil war,” and cast doubt on evidence that the surge was working, saying “the Administration points to selective statistics to make the case for staying the course,” and “the bar for success is so low that it is almost buried in the sand.”

In parts of Obama’s speech, and in the accompanying plan to end the war (PDF), he appeared to model this projected failure in Iraq on the Clinton administration’s failure to prevent ethnic cleansing and partition in Bosnia. Note this part of the speech:
“Iraq needs a new Constitutional convention that would include representatives from all levels of Iraqi society - in and out of government. The United Nations should play a central role in convening and participating in this convention, which should not adjourn until a new accord on national reconciliation is reached. To reconcile, the Iraqis must also meet key political benchmarks outside of the Constitutional process, including new local elections and revising debaathification.

“Now the Iraqis may come out of this process choosing some kind of soft partition into three regions - one Sunni, one Shia, one Kurd. But it must be their choice. America should not impose the division of Iraq.”
There is an odd mix here. Pressure is implied, in benchmarks which Iraqis must meet, a convention which shouldn't adjourn without an accord. Only one possible form of settlement is described, soft partition. And yet he concludes the passage with “America should not impose the division of Iraq.” How should Iraqis read this? As the words of someone with an open mind? Or as a message from someone who wants them to get on with it and choose answer one out of a choice of one, so that he can pack up and go home?

For a taste of Iraqi political opinion on partition, see here. And a February 2008 poll gave details of Iraqi public opinion on partition: a central Government in Baghdad, ruling a unified nation, was still what most Iraqis want, 66% saying it was their preferred choice, with 95% of Sunnis selecting it, 67% of Shias, but only 10% of Kurds. As the Kurdish north has been the most peaceful portion of Iraq since the invasion, their doubts about being ruled by Baghdad are perhaps understandable. This means however that the only part of the country possibly happy with such a proposal would be the one not engaged in civil strife.

A darker aspect of Obama’s expectation of failure emerged in the accompanying plan, which said that Obama “would work to create safe-havens for Iraqis who remain in Iraq, but are displaced from their homes by violence.” Shades of Srebrenica. It also said that “Obama would supply armed escorts to civilians who voluntarily choose to move from religiously heterogeneous areas to communities where they feel they will be more secure.”

This policy was re-stated in March of this year by Obama’s then-adviser Samantha Power who said on BBC radio that his plan for withdrawal involved “moving potentially people from mixed neighborhoods to homogenous neighborhoods, tragic that it's the equivalent of facilitating ethnic cleansing, which is terrible but if that is the choice of people there...” To talk of people fleeing violence as exercising choice is perverse. Samantha Power of all people should have known better.

The fact that Iraqis moving into ‘homogenous neighborhoods’ were not exercising choice was underlined by a New York Times report published a few days after Power’s remarks, describing how young Iraqis were reacting to living in more religiously segregated cities, with religious figures exerting increased control. In short, it was not their choice, and they were turning away from religion as a result. Obama’s plan envisaged delivering more people into such situations, rather than working to ensure they could feel secure in their own homes.

The portions of Obama’s speech and plan to do with diplomacy descended into wishful thinking. The plan said “Barack Obama would work with Kurdish leaders to come to an accommodation with Turkish leaders who see the Kurdish ascendance as a threat. He would press Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia to use their influence to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to reconcile. To combat terrorism, Obama would press Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to stem the flow of foreign fighters, arms, and financial resources into Iraq. Obama also would be a tough negotiator with Syria and Iran, sending a clear message that they need to stop meddling in Iraq’s affairs,” and “to prevent spillover - in particular, Turkish or Iranian adventurism - the Obama plan would promote a regional compact that would ensure commitments by Iraq's neighbors to non-intervention and to Iraq's territorial integrity.”

This pressure and tough negotiation was imagined as occurring concurrently with the US withdrawing troops from Iraq as fast as possible. How could any of the parties take seriously US efforts at exerting pressure in tough negotiations as they watched Obama's speedy exit? This part of the plan was frankly incredible.

* * *

So what does George Packer say in Obama’s Iraq Problem? He writes “Obama’s rhetoric on the topic now seems outdated and out of touch, and the nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far.”

But Packer wants to go easy on the candidate, continuing “in hindsight, it was a mistake - an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today - for Obama to offer such a specific timetable.” But this wasn’t seen as a mistake only in hindsight, Obama and his fellow senators were warned by General Petraeus prior to the September 2007 speech that this was a bad idea. To say that the mistake was understandable “given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today” is to give as an excuse that the candidate prioritised popular media information over military information, prioritised election politics over military strategy. It’s a poor excuse.

Packer’s account of the change in Iraq which now threatens Obama’s position seems politically loaded. He writes “the improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush’s surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia’s unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment.”

This analysis is surprising coming from a journalist who has written in-depth articles on David Kilcullen and pre-surge counterinsurgency operations in Tal Afar, Iraq.  The turning of the Sunni tribes couldn’t have happened until they had confidence that the Americans would stay and support them. The Sadr militia’s ceasefire followed a massive reduction in car bombings and other ethnic violence in Baghdad as a consequence of the surge strategy, which led to the Sadr militia losing much of their raison d’etre in the eyes of a Shia population who no longer needed their protection. The later moves by Iraqi security forces against militias in Basra and Sadr City were facilitated by security improvements elsewhere which freed up troops for those actions. So it was not ‘great historical luck’ that brought these events together, rather they supported each other in a virtuous spiral, and the surge was a key part of that.

More from Packer: “Obama, whatever the idealistic yearnings of his admirers, has turned out to be a cold-eyed, shrewd politician. The same pragmatism that prompted him last month to forgo public financing of his campaign will surely lead him, if he becomes President, to recalibrate his stance on Iraq. He doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, reënergize the Sunni insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia’s recent losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state of collapse.”

If Obama is indeed shrewd enough to realise what the effect of his plan would be in current circumstances, can he also imagine what the likely consequences would have been had it been implemented when he first proposed it in January 2007, or in September 2007 when he rolled it out in greater detail, despite the clear contrary advice of General Petraeus?

George Packer sees the problem, then, but tries to soften it, to blur it to an unrecognisable degree. He goes on to try to imagine how Obama might shift policy and stay looking good, but after all that has gone before, his conclusion seems excessively generous to his preferred candidate. 

He closes: “If Obama truly wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an honorable way to end.

‘He alone’? Why him at all?

UPDATE: Here’s Jeff Weintraub commenting on George Packer’s article, via Martin in the Margins.

UPDATE 2: Added a missing link in the paragraph referring to a New York Times story on the experiences of young Iraqis in ‘homogenous neighborhoods’.

UPDATE 3: Another response to Packer’s article from The New Centrist.

UPDATE 4: Here’s ABC News today, July 11th: Obama’s Iraq Withdrawal Plan May Prove Difficult. The sub-head: US commanders in Iraq warn of security dangers, see logistical nightmare. Full text and video here.

UPDATE 5: It continues, so here’s a follow up post.


Michael Sporn said...

Obama has said from the start that he proposes a 16 month withdrawal from Iraq but would depend on his military advisors to help him accomplish this. He is still saying that, and I'm not sure how that is an out-of-date plan.

The surge is working only in that we are paying the opposition to not attack Americans. This program would not have been necessary if the Bush administration had not eliminated the Iraqi Army. Hundreds of thousands of young males were put out of work overnight. What could they do but work for whomever paid them? When Muqtada al-Sadr says the paid-for "peace" is over, it will be back to dead Americans.

Regardless of the "success" of the surge, we have to exit that country. They want us out; we should be out. Let's just hope our idiot President doesn't attack Iran prior to the election to help McCain. Even that won't.

kellie said...

Hi Michael,
with respect, I think your description of the surge is far too simplistic. May I recommend this report by Trudy Rubin, giving one Iraqi ground level point of view. And if you're not totally averse to a US military perspective then this interview with Colonel HR McMaster is very informative. McMaster is the officer at the centre of the earlier in-depth report by George Packer on Tal Afar mentioned in the post above.

What I think is out of date about Obama's plan is that following Rumsfeld's overdue departure, a strategy the exact opposite to Obama's plan was followed, and the positive results are indisputable. This gives him a serious problem in justifying the reasoning behind the plan.

I think also to say "they want us out" is overly simplistic. There is a very big "but" that comes after that for most Iraqis in any poll I've seen.

Michael Sporn said...

I'm not sure how "simplistic" my comment was. Al Maliki, again today, said he wants terms for us to exit.

Read this:

Only America's ego is keeping us there so we can "win" whatever the hell that means.

kellie said...

Hi again Michael,
to spell out what I meant by 'simplistic': You asserted that 'the surge is working only in that we are paying the opposition to not attack Americans'. I'm afraid this doesn't even make for a half-truth. The fraction of reality it represents is much smaller, which is why I gave you a couple of links to get you started on a somewhat expanded view.

Even the story you link to gives a wider view. To quote it:

Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level in four years. The change has been driven by the 2007 buildup of American forces, the Sunni tribal revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Maliki's crackdowns against Shiite militias and Sunni extremists, among other factors.

Despite the gains, frequent attacks continue.

On the central point of the AP story, the Iraqi PM's proposal for a short term agreement on US forces, including 'a formula for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq', what is apparently being suggested actually runs counter to Obama's proposal. To quote again:

(Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's) national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the government was proposing a timetable that would be conditioned on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security.

If you read Obama's September 2007 speech and the accompanying plan, there is no mention of waiting for Iraqi forces to be able to provide security - quite the opposite, he chastises Iraqi forces for failing, and describes withdrawal as a way to put pressure on them. From the PDF of his plan:

Iraq’s leaders have put off reconciling and
taking on greater security responsibility despite our efforts to pressure them to act. Drawing down our troop presence is the best way to finally apply real pressure on the Iraqi government to make the political accommodations necessary to heal the nation's sectarian rifts, and to take on more responsibility for providing security to their people.

It looks to me more like al-Maliki is looking for protection from Obama's threat of pressure by making sure that withdrawal will not come before the Iraqis are ready.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link!

Yes, it is clear to most people that Obama is flipping and flopping like Kerry. Won't make a difference for devotees like Mr. Sporn but hopefully the rest of the country is paying attention.

kellie said...

My problem with Obama is more that he isn't flipping enough. If he changed convincingly to a better policy, I'd have no difficulty supporting him, though obviously a big portion of his base would have great difficulty with it.

Anonymous said...

"If he changed convincingly to a better policy..."

The fourth word in your sentence is key. Many (most?) political flip-floppers switch positions to convince a particular constituency. As soon as those folks are on board, they flip around again and again and again.

I understand people change their opinions and that can be a good thing. But when it is obvious someone is just telling a certain group what they want to hear it is pandering.

Obama pandered to the "progressive" Democrats and now he is doing the same to centrists. He (or his advisors) realize this centrist support is necessary for him to win in Nov.

kellie said...

Agreed, focus group fudge is not the same thing as convincing change.