A new consensus on Iraq
looks at the factors driving the seeming convergence of Barack Obama, the Bush administration and other players when it comes to Iraq--and what policy they are actually converging around.
IS THE end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq within sight?
In late July, newspaper headlines announced that the Bush administration and Iraqi officials had agreed on a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The fuzzy phraseology allows the Bush administration to deny that it had agreed to a "timetable" for withdrawal--something it has repeatedly denounced as "irresponsible" when advocated by Democrats.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama, who has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by late 2010 if he becomes president, captured the world's attention with a whirlwind tour that took him to Baghdad for meetings with Iraqi politicians and U.S. military leaders.
Shortly before he arrived, an interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Germany's Der Spiegel made headlines because Maliki basically endorsed Obama's 2010 timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops--and made the pointed remark that "he who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq."
The sudden convergence of Obama, Maliki and the Bush administration on Iraq left Republican presidential candidate John McCain out in the cold. For months, he has attacked Obama for failing to understand what's at stake in Iraq with his 16-month withdrawal proposal. But suddenly, McCain looks like the one who's out of step--with the heads of state in both the U.S. and Iraq.
As news of Maliki's praise of Obama sunk in, McCain stuck to his script. "The fact is, if we had done what Senator Obama wanted to do, we would have lost," McCain said. "And we would have faced a wider war. And we would have had greater problems in Afghanistan and the entire region. And Iran would have increased their influence."
That perfectly describes the situation that already exists--as a direct product of the U.S. war on Iraq.
At the same time, McCain might be trying to change direction. "If there is any fixed position in John McCain's policy agenda, it's that we must never, ever, set a timetable for leaving Iraq," observed the Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman. "So it was a surprise to hear him say Monday [July 21], when asked if our troops might depart in the next two years, 'Oh, I think they could be largely withdrawn, as I've said.'"
ALL THIS raises larger questions: What's behind the new consensus on Iraq? And beyond surface appearances, what policy are the various players actually converging around?
There are three chief factors to consider: the U.S. political and media establishment's mantra about the "success of the surge," the political pressures of approaching elections in both the U.S. and Iraq, and the fundamental continuity of the foreign policy assumptions guiding both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
The U.S. mainstream media has settled on the following description of life in Iraq in 2008: The troop surge, begun by the U.S. in early 2007, has enjoyed enormous success. Violence in Iraq is down. This must mean that the Iraqi government is better able to provide security.
But using the single measure of a declining body count to assess conditions in Iraq today misses the larger picture, which is grimmer, according to journalist Patrick Cockburn:
In June, 554 Iraqi civilians and security were killed, compared with 1,642 a year earlier. The sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, which was at its height between the end of 2005 and the first half of 2007, has ebbed. This is not so much because of the surge, but because there is nobody left to kill. Baghdad has become a largely Shia city. There are few mixed areas remaining.
Iraq expert Juan Cole makes a similar point:
Despite all the talk about Iraq being "calm," I'd like to point out that the month just before the last visit Barack Obama made to Iraq (he went in January 2006), there were 537 civilian and ISF [Iraqi Security Force] Iraqi casualties. In June of this year, 2008, there were 554, according to AP...That is, the Iraqi death toll is actually still worse now than the last time Obama was in Iraq!...
Why a return to the bad situation in late 2005 and early 2006 should be greeted by the GOP as the veritable coming of the Messiah is beyond me.
Entirely absent from the discussion of the "great strides" Iraq has made is the continuing crisis of life for Iraqis--lack of electricity during the sweltering summer months, skyrocketing food prices, mass unemployment, a massive refugee crisis.
But the endless repetition about the success of the surge has produced a certain contradictory pressure for U.S. politicians. If the situation in Iraq is improving, why should U.S. troops stay?
That brings us to the even more important factor of approaching elections in the U.S. and Iraq.
Two-thirds or more of the U.S. public want the troops to come home--quickly. So it's easy to see why Obama would promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops--even as he attaches a number of qualifications, conditions and contingencies that will leave a residual force of many tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, possibly increase the number of private contractors, and even allow for the launching of new offensives into or from Iraq as "conditions on the ground demand it."
But the U.S. elections don't directly affect the outgoing Bush administration. So why would Bush finally agree to a "time horizon for meeting aspirational goals"?
Because Bush administration officials and Maliki are currently negotiating a so-called "status of forces agreement" (SOFA) that will govern the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after the UN mandate covering the American presence in Iraq runs out on December 30.
This negotiation has become an issue in the coming Iraqi elections, which were originally scheduled for October, but will almost certainly be postponed to 2009 because of sharp disagreements among Iraq's Sunni, Shia and Kurdish legislators about how to organize the vote.
Nevertheless, Maliki is under enormous pressure to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, or risk a defeat for his Dawa Party at election time.
A similar dynamic accompanied Iraq's parliamentary elections in January 2005 when all the main contenders publicly called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal to curry favor with Iraq's voters--leading to much hand-wringing in the U.S. military and intelligence communities.
In truth, Iraq's puppet government depends on the U.S. military's presence to keep its grip on power, so the promises to throw the U.S. out have to be understood in light of domestic political pressures--a fact that war planners in the U.S. have absorbed.
That's why the SOFA negotiations include talk of a timetable, while at the same time detailing other conditions totally at odds with a withdrawal of U.S. forces, such as continued American control of Iraqi air space, exemptions of U.S. personnel from legal prosecution in Iraq, the right of the U.S. to launch military strikes at its own discretion, and a continued presence in well-fortified bases and the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
BEYOND THE media echo chamber and the alignment of election pressures on politicians in both Iraq and the U.S., the more important factor driving the new consensus on Iraq is the rarely acknowledged fact of American politics--whatever their rhetorical differences, the Democratic Party is guided by the same foreign policy goals as the Republican Party, even if the methods for accomplishing those goals differ in important respects.
Obama's foreign policy remains committed to the pursuit of U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond, in collaboration with allies when possible and without their approval whenever it's deemed necessary.
Obama wants to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. So does the Bush administration. Obama says it's time to talk with Iran face-to-face. And so does the Bush administration. Obama recently repeated his threat to take a harder line with Pakistan than the administration has, pledging to carry out unilateral military strikes inside Pakistan if Obama were to receive "actionable intelligence against high-value al-Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets."
Foreign policy analyst Madhavi Bhasin argues that a careful look at Obama's positions--as well as the views of those who make up his foreign policy team--reveals a platform that deviates not at all from the reigning orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment:
In his speeches, Obama has discreetly supported the idea of a Concert of Democracies by calling for the need to strengthen institutions and invigorate alliances and partnerships for meeting the global threats. He seeks to build an America that fights immediate evil, promotes an ultimate good and leads the world. Does this sound any different from the promises made by President Bush and reasserted by Senator McCain?
No matter who becomes the next president, the U.S. will continue its policies of political, economic and strategic intervention in countries that appear threatening, while courting greater support from its allies. With either a Democratic or Republican president at the helm of affairs, the U.S. may be expected to continue a policy of "aggressive internationalism."