Decoding Obama on Iraq

July 22, 2008

On July 14, the New York Times featured an op-ed by Barack Obama laying out his "plan for Iraq." But Obama's position on Iraq is carefully crafted to sound antiwar, while providing a vehicle for the U.S. to pursue a different strategy in the Middle East. columnist Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, examines Obama's proposal, point by point, to see what the Democratic presidential candidate is really saying.

My Plan for Iraq
By Barack Obama

The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.

Obama is not proposing a withdrawal plan but a limited, phased redeployment plan. That is, he is not for a complete withdrawal, let alone an immediate and unconditional one.

The term redeployment also makes clear that the troops will be moved, whether to Afghanistan, where Obama proposes to send at least 10,000 more troops, or "over the horizon" in the Middle East, but still within "striking distance" of Iraq--namely Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Djibouti or on aircraft carriers stationed in the Gulf.

That Obama still talks about success in Iraq is truly remarkable and reveals how narrow the spectrum of debate is between Democrats and Republican. McCain and Obama both would only end the occupation if they are able to declare a victory for the United States.

The differences on Iraq in this campaign are deep.

Actually, the differences are mostly rhetorical. Both John McCain and Barack Obama will keep troops in Iraq as an occupying force. Both are committed to dominating the energy resources of the Middle East. Both favor a strong relationship with Israel. Both have said "all options" must be on the table in terms of preventing Iran from emerging as a nuclear power (Obama said specifically: "We should take no option, including military action, off the table.") They differ on the tactics and in part on the strategy to pursue in achieving these aims.

Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president.

The only way to end the war would be to withdraw all U.S. troops; withdraw all mercenaries and private contractors involved in the occupation, all U.S. "advisers" who are meddling in Iraq's internal affairs, and all military bases; and end all threats against Iraq about the policies it must pursue in relationship to oil policy, neoliberal economic policies and support for U.S. political positions in the region. Obama has no plan to end the war. He plans instead to repurpose it and refashion it.

I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Obama has said repeatedly lately that Iraq is a distraction from the Afghanistan occupation. He thus accepts the broader framework of the "war on terror," even while saying it needs to be fought more effectively, and accepts that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have legitimacy. But the Afghan occupation has, from the outset, been motivated by the goal of regime change and creating a demonstration of U.S. power, at the expense of Afghan civilians, who also had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11.

Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion.

The true cost of the war is already well beyond a trillion dollars, if you factor in the true costs of the war, as economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes suggest.

What Obama does not mention is that he has voted for hundreds of billions of those dollars to be spent in his time in the Senate, through his support of an expanded Pentagon budget and the ongoing supplemental funding bills to continue the occupation. Obama's Web site excuses this by this circuitous rationale: "Since Obama came to Washington in January of 2005, every single Senate Democrat has voted for every single Iraq funding bill that has come to the Senate floor until President Bush vetoed a timetable for withdrawal."

Obama would, in fact, increase military spending on a number of weapons programs and expand the military by 92,000 new troops.

Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face--from Afghanistan to al-Qaeda to Iran--has grown.

The threat of Iran is an interesting idea. No one speaks of the threat of the United States to Iran, though the U.S. has an official policy of regime change in Iran and is sponsoring covert operations against the country. No one speaks of the threat of Israel against Iran, even though Israel recently engaged in military exercises meant to demonstrate its ability to strike Iran, and even though Israel--which, unlike Iran, is not a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--has more than 200 nuclear warheads, while Iran is many years away from being able to have even one.

In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence.

This is a complete fallacy. The presence of U.S troops as an unwanted foreign occupying force is the main source of violence and instability in Iraq, which is still enormously high.

The rate of violent deaths and attacks has declined for three reasons, having nothing to do with the so-called surge.

The first is that ethnic cleansing and displacement of Iraqis has been so widespread, Iraq has become a tragic example of what economists call "the point of diminishing returns"--in this case, of further sectarian violence.

The second is that many Sunni groups previously engaged in military conflict with the United States--that is, the people a year ago we called "the terrorists," "Baathist dead-enders" and al-Qaeda, but who we now call Awakening Councils and Iraqi volunteers--have entered temporary alliances with the United States to fight the Shia militias Washington previously armed.

The third is that Moktada al-Sadr, the Shia leader of the Mahdi Army, has for most of the last year declared a ceasefire. He could call off that ceasefire at any moment, just as at any moment, the Sunni militias on the U.S. payroll could conclude that they should again return to the conflict with occupying soldiers.

New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected al-Qaeda--greatly weakening its effectiveness.

Iraqis have never accepted al-Qaeda. The reality is that the occupation and the resistance to it created an environment in which al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia, its own separate and distinct formation, could operate. But the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and anti-occupation fighters have rejected these groups from the beginning and have sought to root them out. Unless the United States completely withdraws, they will continue to have room to operate in Iraq.

But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and we've spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted.

Again, this has been enabled by Obama and the Democratic Party leadership, which, despite being elected to a majority in the House and Senate in 2006 because of popular opposition to the war, have repeatedly voted to fund the war.

Iraq's leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge.

Obama here follows the establishment lead of blaming Iraqis for the problems created by our illegal invasion and occupation. The U.S. has overseen the "reconstruction" of Iraq--in reality, its destruction--with the benefits accruing only to the contractors making profits from their no-bid contracts.

The mantra about reaching a "political accommodation," borrowed from Hillary Clinton's campaign, again seeks to blame Iraqis for the problems we created. The purpose of the increase of troops was not to foster reconciliation between Iraqi government factions--which the United States has manipulated since the onset of the occupation, and even in advance of it through its work with exiled Iraqi elites--but to forestall a defeat of the U.S. in Iraq.

The good news is that Iraq's leaders want to take responsibility for their country by negotiating a timetable for the removal of American troops.

Here, we see more of Obama's "tough love" message for Iraqis. They need to "take responsibility." Not the United States, which illegally invaded, destroyed the country, created millions of refugees, and killed untold numbers of Iraqis. Not the military contactors who tortured and killed Iraqis, and lined their pockets. And if the Iraqis don't "take responsibility," we might just have to end all our hard, selfless work to help them out.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer in charge of training Iraq's security forces, estimates that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for security in 2009.

This is a fantasy. On the one hand, Iraqis have long been capable of running their own affairs, despite all the paternalism of the occupation. But the Iraqi security forces are themselves sectarian militias (ones we armed) that are badly divided internally. And most security forces will be seen as collaborators with the occupiers, without any legitimacy, and hence the target of attacks until there is a real end to the U.S. occupation.

Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis' taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country. Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition--despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq's sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops "surrender," even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.

The definition of sovereign here is an interesting one. The status of forces agreement the U.S. is hoping to put in place before December 30, when the United Nations mandate for the occupation is set to expire, will leave Washington in control of Iraqi air space, exempt from Iraqi law, able to detain any Iraqis at its own initiative, able to launch military strikes at its own initiative, and in possession of long-term military bases and the world's largest embassy in Baghdad. Other agreements will leave Western companies largely in control of Iraqi oil.

But this is not a strategy for success--it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States.

The occupation has long been contrary to the will of Iraqis and the U.S. populace.

That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.

The war will not end if troops remain, if mercenaries remain (an Obama aide acknowledged to journalist Jeremy Scahill that Obama may, in fact, increase the number of mercenaries from companies such as Blackwater to replace active-duty troops redeployed from Iraq) and if U.S. bases remain--and Obama acknowledges they will for many years to come.

As I've said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010--two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began.

Obama has floated this 16-month period several times, while also acknowledging it is not a fixed timetable. But this timeframe, which will almost certainly be extended in "consultation with military advisers," is only for "combat" troops--a verbal slight of hand since roughly half of U.S. troops fall in this category. Again, Obama also says nothing about the private contractors who equal or even exceed the total number of troops.

After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces.

Here, Obama takes away with one hand what he gives with the other. The residual occupying force will most likely be tens of thousands of troops--perhaps more, with support staff and contractors alongside them. "Going after" al-Qaeda is the rationale George Bush gives for staying in Iraq. "Force protection" is not necessary if you are not in Iraq as an occupying power. And training is really a euphemism for Iraqification, much like Vietnamization before it.

That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.

After more than five years of illegally occupying a country, no withdrawal, however speedy, would be "precipitous."

In carrying out this strategy, we would inevitably need to make tactical adjustments.

Meaning that the 16-month schedule, limited and problematic as it is, is likely to be extended.

As I have often said, I would consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected. We would move them from secure areas first and volatile areas later.

What interests does Obama mean? Certainly not the interests of U.S. soldiers--more than 4,100 of them are now dead, more than 28,000 are injured, and many more are deeply scarred psychologically. Not the interests of the poor and working-class people paying for this war. Not the interests of the Iraqi people. Instead, the interests of the arms dealers, the oil companies, the war planners and the U.S. elites who manage the domination of the Middle East and benefit from it.

We would pursue a diplomatic offensive with every nation in the region on behalf of Iraq's stability, and commit $2 billion to a new international effort to support Iraq's refugees.

With more than 2 million Iraqis internally displaced and more than 2 million externally displaced, this is a paltry sum, especially when one considers the immense harm and destruction the United States has created during--and before--the occupation. The U.S. should drop Iraq's debt and pay hundreds of billions in reparations to Iraqis, not just the refugees, who Washington has indeed criminally abandoned.

Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won't have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq. As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.

The word permanent here is a red herring. George Bush has said repeatedly that we do not want "permanent" bases. But when pressed, Bush officials acknowledge that they regard no bases as permanent.

In this campaign, there are honest differences over Iraq, and we should discuss them with the thoroughness they deserve. Unlike Senator McCain, I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea, and would redeploy our troops out of Iraq and focus on the broader security challenges that we face. But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.

The Iraqi bases are clearly meant to be long-term, "enduring" bases. The embassy the United States is building in Baghdad is the largest of any in the world. Obama is simply engaging in a sleight of hand here. Unless he is in favor of a complete withdrawal, any "residual" forces will be on U.S. bases for years to come.

It's not going to work this time. It's time to end this war.

It is indeed time to end the occupation of Iraq and to end the war against the world that goes under the rubric of the "war on terror." But the only way to do this is to build a mass, democratic and independent antiwar movement, build the resistance of soldiers and veterans, and push for genuine withdrawal, not a repurposing of the war on terror.

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