First Published 2009-01-02

How Obama Lost Control of Iraq Policy

There is a continued military insistence on a conditions-based approach to a US withdrawal from Iraq that is part of a broader plan by Bush administration and military officials to evade key provisions of the SOFA , which has just begun to take effect, says Gareth Porter.

After Barack Obama’s electoral victory in November, one of the major questions was whether he would hold to his pledge during the campaign to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. The fate of that withdrawal plan was seen as an indicator of Obama’s broader foreign policy orientation and the role he would play in foreign and national security policy.


There was conflict between the president-elect and the US military leadership, known to oppose his withdrawal policy. But Obama had unusually strong convictions on Iraq. The struggle reflects a fundamental choice between strategic withdrawal from Iraq and an attempt to prolong the US military presence in the country beyond 2011.


Obama’s withdrawal plan was not a mere sop to his anti-war Democratic activist base; it reflected a carefully considered personal strategic analysis. The clearest statement of Obama’s strategic rationale for a speedy withdrawal came on 15 July 2008, when Obama said the US military involvement in Iraq “distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize.” The Iraq war, he argued, “diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”


In a New York Times op-ed on 14 July, Obama said his plan would involve “tactical adjustments” and vowed to “consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely.” But at a press conference two days later, he explained that these caveats would not affect the larger 16-month deadline for withdrawal, but related only to the pace of withdrawal “in certain months” to assure the safety of American troops being withdrawn.


Obama insisted that he would not adjust his schedule to bring it into line with the recommendation of General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. “The president’s job,” said Obama, “is to tell the generals what their mission is.” And when Obama finally met Petraeus in Baghdad later that month, he rejected his elaborate argument for a “conditions-based” withdrawal, according to Joe Klein’s account in Time magazine, and insisted that he would make the decision based on his own evaluation of costs of continuing US presence.


There was one ambiguity. He suggested that he would keep a “residual force in Iraq” to perform “limited missions,” which he defined as including force protection and training of Iraqi security forces, but also “going after any remnants of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.” But he had earlier made it clear that the forces targeting al-Qaida would be based elsewhere in the Middle East.


The al-Maliki bombshell


Obama, like everyone else in Washington, was expecting the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) then under negotiation to allow a long-term US military presence in the country. Even in mid-August, the Bush administration was still insisting that the dates for withdrawal of combat forces would be only “time targets” and thus dependent on “conditions.” However, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki unexpectedly forced Bush to accept the complete withdrawal of all combat troops by the end of 2011, and also the complete withdrawal of all non-combat troops by the same date. He also demanded that US troops withdraw from cities and towns by June 2009 and regroup in bases to be located by agreement with Iraq.


The final SOFA agreement accepted by the Bush administration on 6 November requires Washington to turn over a detailed schedule for complete withdrawal and even create “mechanisms and arrangements” to reduce US forces levels within the specified time period. It forbids US troops from operating in the country without full Iraqi approval and coordination, and from detaining Iraqis without an Iraqi court order. It includes an absolute ban on the use of Iraqi territory or airspace to “launch attacks against other countries”.


The Pentagon plan


So by the time Obama had been elected, his 16-month withdrawal timetable was very much in line with the intent of the US-Iraq agreement. But the US military leadership was far from reconciled with his plan — or with the terms imposed by the SOFA. And it soon became apparent that the military and Pentagon bureaucracy had a plan to roll back the agreement.


Within 72 hours of Obama’s election, Time magazine quoted the commander of US forces in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, as saying that the withdrawal of US forces would have to be done “slowly, in a deliberate way, so we don’t give back the gains we’ve had”. Time reported that “senior US military officials” were likely to advise Obama to “adjust his campaign pledge to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by mid-2010.”


Three days later the Washington Post reported that Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposed Obama’s timeline for withdrawal as “dangerous” and still held to the military’s insistence that “reductions must depend on conditions on the ground.” Citing “defence experts,” the Post reported that conflict between Obama and these military leaders would be “inevitable” if Obama were to press for the withdrawal of two brigades per month, as he had reaffirmed on his own website after the election.


Speaking to reporters on 16 November, Mullen publicly declared his intention to advise Obama to make the pace and scale of withdrawal dependent on events on the ground. That announcement represented an open challenge to the president-elect.


The Post reported on 18 November, the day of the signing of the agreement, that Pentagon officials said the time frame envisioned in the agreement gives them adequate time to safely remove all equipment and roughly 150,000 US troops from Iraq, but had “reiterated that such a withdrawal should take place only if conditions warrant it.” These officials, who understood that the agreement had rejected the conditions-based approach in favour of a firm timetable, were asserting that in effect the United States should not be bound by the deadline for withdrawal in the agreement it had just signed.


It soon became clear that the continued military insistence on a conditions-based approach was part of a broader plan by Bush administration and military officials to evade key provisions of the SOFA. McClatchy newspapers reported on 25 November that Bush administration officials had secretly adopted “interpretations” of the ban on the use of Iraqi bases to launch attacks on other countries and the requirement to notify the Iraqi government in advance of US military operations that would allow the US to “circumvent” those legal constraints. It planned to use the “right of self-defence” in the agreement to justify any strike against targets in Syria and Iran, and to argue that it would only have to inform Iraqi officials of plans for operations in a given province during a given month.


The Bush administration had kept these “interpretations” secret from the Iraqi government, which would clearly have rejected them out of hand. In fact, they were not “interpretations” of the agreement but proposals to subvert it. The provision governing US military operations requires not just notification but “the approval of the Iraqi government” and “full coordination with Iraqi authorities.” The prohibition against “attacks against other countries” in the agreement is absolute and unconditional.


An even more serious ploy conceived by Pentagon planners to subvert the intention of the SOFA was revealed by the New York Times, which reported on 4 December that “Pentagon planners” were proposing “relabelling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be ‘re-missioned’, their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis.” The Times suggested, with a straight face, that the proposed “relabelling” was a method by which “Mr. Obama’s goal could be accomplished at least in part.”


Of course, it was just the opposite. The Times said the Pentagon planners were projecting that as many as 70,000 US troops would be maintained in Iraq “for a substantial time even beyond 2011”.


What the plan for keeping combat troops indefinitely in Iraq under the guise of “training and support” troops, the insistence by Adm. Mullen and other military leaders on “conditions-based withdrawal”, and the devising of justifications for ignoring the limitations on US operations all had in common was the intention by the US military and its civilian allies to reverse both the Obama withdrawal plan and the US-Iraq agreement.


Why Gates was necessary

Obama was confronted with a Pentagon bureaucracy that was signalling its determination to pursue a course in Iraq that was in direct contradiction to his own policy, and to the clear intent of the Iraqi government. The pressure on Obama to keep the secretary of defence Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon should be understood in light of this open challenge to his leadership.


The pressure began within 24 hours of Obama’s election; the New York Times said the case for asking Gates to stay on at the Pentagon “is being made publicly by columnists and commentators, and quietly by leading Congressional voices of Mr. Obama’s own party.”


The public rationale for this unprecedented appointment was continuity and stability at a time when the United States was involved in two wars. But according to a source close to the Obama transition team, the reasoning was frankly political: The Democrats were concerned about their presumed political vulnerability on national security and wanted to have Gates, as a Republican, preside over the Iraq policy, to give them political cover.


The policy implication of Obama’s choice of Gates is clear. Gates was known to be opposed to Obama’s withdrawal plan, with the military leadership. And it is inconceivable that he was not fully involved in the Pentagon planning for a policy that would seek to reverse the US-Iraq withdrawal agreement and prolong the US military presence indefinitely. Given its broad scope and multilevel character, it is likely that he was at the centre of it.


Although Obama may continue to issue statements on Iraq policy, the Gates nomination signalled that control of the issue has already passed from the White House to the Pentagon. If he is displeased with what Gates does on Iraq, Obama cannot threaten to fire him. Based on the evidence that has already come to light, the Pentagon can be expected to continue, under Obama, to use all means available to subvert the agreement — and the Iraqi regime — in order to establish a long-term military presence.


The story of how Obama came to yield effective control over his Iraq policy is a profound lesson on the nature of power on an issue of particular interest to the military leadership and its civilian allies. It has shown just how weak the democratic system’s defence is against the influence of the US military and its allies when they are determined to have their way.



Gareth Porter is a historian and foreign policy analyst and author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, University of California Press, 2005.


Copyright ©2009 Le Monde diplomatique

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