When Barack Obama announced yesterday that all US troops would return from Iraq, he framed it as a campaign promise kept, although Obama promised to pull the troops out in 16 months and ended up sticking with the timeline set by George Bush instead. He also neglected to mention that his administration had spent the last several months trying to avoid the outcome he proudly proclaimed. This morning, the New York Times makes clear that neither side wanted a full withdrawal from Iraq, and that the collapse in negotiations came as a result of bungling by the White House:
President Obama’s announcement on Friday that all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year was an occasion for celebration for many, but some top American military officials were dismayed by the announcement, seeing it as the president’s putting the best face on a breakdown in tortured negotiations with the Iraqis.
And for the negotiators who labored all year to avoid that outcome, it represented the triumph of politics over the reality of Iraq’s fragile security’s requiring some troops to stay, a fact everyone had assumed would prevail. …
This month, American officials pressed the Iraqi leadership to meet again at President Talabani’s compound to discuss the issue. This time the Americans asked them to take a stand on the question of immunity for troops, hoping to remove what had always been the most difficult hurdle. But they misread Iraqi politics and the Iraqi public. Still burdened by the traumas of this and previous wars, and having watched the revolutions sweeping their region, the Iraqis were unwilling to accept anything that infringed on their sovereignty.
Acutely aware of that sentiment, the Iraqi leadership quickly said publicly that they would not support legal protections for any American troops. Some American officials have privately said that pushing for that meeting — in essence forcing the Iraqis to take a public stand on such a controversial matter before working out the politics of presenting it to their constituents and to Parliament — was a severe tactical mistake that ended any possibility of keeping American troops here past December.
In other words, Obama wants to make a little political hay on the Left thanks to what looks like incompetence. That may come back to bite Obama, however, as some of the same troops whose return Obama wants to hail may have to make a U-turn in the next few months:
On Friday evening, an American official in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential, said that negotiations would now center on arrangements that would begin next year, after all United States troops leave.
Possibilities being discussed are for some troops to return in 2012, an option preferred by some Iraqi politicians who want to claim credit for ending what many here still call an occupation, even though legally it ended years ago.
Really? As part of his “mission accomplished” speech yesterday, Obama insisted that we need to focus on rebuilding our own country. How exactly will he sell the return of thousands of American troops to Iraq? The only people he impressed with yesterday’s announcement are the people who adamantly insist we don’t belong in Iraq at all, not that we need to check off a box and then return to build some permanent bases.
We needed to keep a presence in Iraq, not just to provide a balance on Iranian ambitions in the region but also to assist Iraq in strengthening its own internal and external security. That’s why we needed to negotiate a continuous presence, not pull a yo-yo act that reduces our credibility and costs us time and money for no good purpose at all. And after we pack up and leave, I find it difficult to believe that Obama will send troops back into Iraq in the middle of an election cycle.
Smart power, indeed.