The Agenda

Kimberly and Frederick Kagan on America’s Disengagement from Iraq

The cover story of the latest issue of National Review recounts how the United States has mishandled relations with Iraq. The authors, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, use President Obama’s characterization of the state of Iraq in December of last year as the framing device for their informative, and often disturbing, article:

President Obama announced the “end of America’s war in Iraq” on December 14, 2011, with the words, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations.” These were the conditions that he felt allowed him to describe the completion of America’s military withdrawal as a “moment of success.” Nine months later, Iraq does not seem like a success, even in these extremely limited terms. It is neither sovereign nor stable nor self-reliant. Its government does not reflect the will of its people; Sunni officials have been marginalized and, in some cases, driven out of office. And it is not a partner of the United States on any of the key issues in the region: From its evasion of economic sanctions on Iran to its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Iraq stands in Tehran’s camp, not Washington’s. The reality is that the United States has not achieved its national-security objectives in Iraq and is not likely to do so.

A few core points:

(1) The intensification of sectarian violence and the revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the successes of its political wing, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), suggest that Iraq is very far from stable

(2) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has badly undermined the democratic legitimacy of his government through heavy-handed tactics, including the use of Iraqi security forces against political rivals. It is a stretch to say that Maliki heads a representative government that was elected by its people.

(3) There are relatively few issues on which the Iraqi government has proven a reliable partner of the U.S. On most major issues, including sanctions against Iran, the crisis in Syria, the Iranian-backed effort to overthrow the government of Bahrain, Iraq has embraced a position directly opposed to that of the U.S. government. In fairness, the Iraqis have legitimate concerns about elements in the Syrian opposition that had also waged war against the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq’s Iran policy is deeply problematic:

Advocates of extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq cited Iraq’s inability to guard the sovereignty of its airspace in support of their position — presciently, it turns out. Iraq’s skies are a critical lifeline for the vicious regime of Bashar Assad, to whom the Iranian military is flying supplies, weapons, and advisers as he kills thousands of his own people in a desperate attempt to retain control of Syria. Iraq does not have air-defense systems. It does not have air-to-air fighters. Iranian aircraft that wish to pass through Iraqi airspace have only to do so, and the most Baghdad can do is lodge a protest. For the most part, Maliki has refused even to do that. Had the U.S. succeeded in negotiating a long-term military relationship with Iraq, Tehran would have found these overflights much more complicated. De facto American control of Iraq’s airspace would have given Maliki an easy excuse to refuse Iranian requests to enter it — and might well have deterred Tehran from making such requests.

More broadly, Iraqi Shiite political elements with close ties to Iran have gained influence. 

(4) Some will no doubt see the deterioration of U.S. influence in Iraq as inevitable. Kimberly and Robert Kagan suggest that this is not so, drawing on the work of Michael Gordon, co-author of the forthcoming book The Endgame. The Obama administration began negotiations to extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq in the summer of 2011, extremely late in the game, on the grounds that an Iraqi government hadn’t been formed. This agonizingly slow process was not, according to Gordon, helped along by the Obama administration, which might have helped broker a deal. And though Prime Minister Maliki had offered an executive agreement that he could unilaterally approve, President Obama insisted on legislative approval. This might in itself be defensible — a deal with legislative approval might prove more politically durable, for obvious reasons. But it doesn’t seem as though the president made much of an effort:

President Obama did not exert himself to smooth the negotiations, confining his communications with Maliki to the initial conversation in June and a discussion in October during which the U.S. president told his Iraqi counterpart that the negotiations were over and U.S. forces were leaving.

Kimberly and Robert Kagan offer the following interpretation:

This failure may have resulted from a lack of desire on the part of the Obama administration to keep sufficient troops in Iraq, from its inability to make a deal, from its unreasonable demands, from Iraqi intransigence, or from all of the above. From a strategic and national-security standpoint, the only thing that matters is that by failing to secure a new agreement, the U.S. failed profoundly to secure its hard-won gains. Even more important, it failed to secure its interests.

Reading this article really drove him the fact that while political observers have generally characterized President Obama’s foreign policy record as one of his biggest strengths, it should in fact be one of his biggest weaknesses. The problem is that very few frontline Republicans have been able to make a clear and compelling case against the Obama administration’s record. A country weary of war has been by and large very happy to wash its hands of Iraq, despite the fact that this short-sighted decision has greatly undermined our ability to achieve vitally important foreign policy goals in the Middle East — leaving aside the danger it poses to Iraqis and regional stability.  


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