Gates: We'll stay in Iraq if Baghdad requests it

Progressive heads explode in 5, 4, 3, 2 ….

The Obama administration would keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the agreed final withdrawal date of Dec. 31, 2011, if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide “pretty quickly” in order for the Pentagon to accommodate the extension, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday during what he said probably is his final visit to this war-torn country.

Whether to negotiate an extended U.S. military presence is up to the Iraqis, he said, adding that he thought an extension might make sense.

“We are willing to have a presence beyond (2011), but we’ve got a lot of commitments,” he said, not only in Afghanistan and Libya but also in Japan, where he said 19 U.S. Navy ships and about 18,000 U.S. military personnel are assisting in earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor relief efforts.

“So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning,” he added. “I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we’ll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis.”

Just as with the reversals on closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility and trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, this policy change makes a lot of sense.  The US has invested a tremendous amount of blood, treasure, and diplomatic credibility on creating a stable, democratic representative republic in Iraq.  We have a deep interest in seeing it succeed, if for no other reason than to prove that an Arab democracy is possible and can maintain itself without falling under the thumb of nearby dictatorships.  The security forces in Iraq still need American logistical support and training, and their near-nonexistent air force needs a great deal of development.

However, this represents a remarkable turnaround for Barack Obama, and one that will further infuriate his base if the Iraqis take up Gates on his offer.  While Obama campaigned on a promise to commit more resources to the war in Afghanistan, a pledge his supporters assumed was strictly rhetorical until Obama actually fulfilled it, Obama specifically campaigned on ending American involvement in Iraq.  He pledged to pull the US out of the country within 16 months, the soonest an orderly withdrawal could possibly be completed.  Once in office, he fell back to the existing, Bush-negotiated Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), but his supporters still credited Obama with positioning the US to be fully withdrawn from Iraq in his first term.

If we stay in Iraq through 2012 — and we should be thinking about a military alliance along the same lines as South Korea — what exactly will Obama be able to tell his base in the election campaign about hope and change?  At this point, the only difference between Obama and a John McCain presidency is that McCain might have actually closed Gitmo and spent a lot less money.  Talk about buyers’ remorse.

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