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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fred Hiatt: Iraq highlights for Obama the threat of disengagement

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays.

He writes in The Washington Post:

As the Middle East seemed to unravel last week, much of the blame-game debate centered on whether President Obama could and should have stationed a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011.

That’s an important question. But it’s part of a much bigger argument — one with daunting implications for Americans.

Throughout Obama’s first term, his advisers divided into two teams over how to combat Islamist terrorism: the Engagers, often backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Minimalists, backed by Vice President Biden.

The Engagers won some early rounds, notably persuading Obama to invest heavily in helping Afghanistan develop and defend itself. But over time Obama sided with the Minimalists, and he shaped a second-term team that wouldn’t relitigate his decision.

And no wonder: The Minimalists had a lot of common sense on their side.
The future is in East Asia, they said. In the coming decades, China is going to matter a lot; Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia hardly at all. It makes no sense for the United States to get bogged down in millennium-old feuds between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Even if we want to take sides or help Yemen, say, become a modern state, the argument continued, we don’t really know how. We’re no good at nation-building. Let them sort it out. To the extent that Islamist radicals might threaten the United States, we could counter them from a distance — with drone strikes and by “partnering” with locals who would do the fighting for us.

Sensible, and politically congenial, too. Voters were pleased to hear that the threat that had come to their attention so traumatically in 2001 was defused. All the better if the United States could stop sending soldiers and money to parts of the world that Americans didn’t much care about in the first place.

Obama shaped his policies accordingly, starting with a total withdrawal from Iraq. Some argue that he had no choice, because Iraq wouldn’t give legal immunity to U.S. soldiers. I think if Obama had really wanted an agreement, and been willing to offer more than a few thousand soldiers, he could have negotiated one. What no one disputes is that Obama was content with the zero option and sanguine about Iraq’s prospects even without a U.S. follow-on force.

Minimalism won again when Obama declined, after joining a bombing campaign to topple Libya’s dictator, to help the new government keep the peace. And again when he rejected the advice of top aides to support the moderate rebels in Syria. And most recently, when he announced an identical policy for Afghanistan as for Iraq: all troops out within two years, except for a presence inside the U.S. Embassy.

I wish these policies had succeeded. Who wouldn’t prefer to spend money “nation-building at home,” as Obama promised, or helping to build a golden Pacific future?

Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become “the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,” as Mr. Obama’s U.N ambassador said.

Now Iraq is disintegrating. Of course, as many commentators write, Iraq’s politicians are to blame. But if the United States had maintained a presence, it might have steered Iraqi politics in a more constructive direction.

If Libya, Syria and Iraq were only human rights catastrophes — as each assuredly is — the Minimalists might hold firm. Terrible things happen in many places, they would say, and Americans can’t set them all right.

But the unraveling threatens the United States, too. A ruthless medieval dictatorship controlling territory from Syria into Iraq is luring and training Islamist extremists, including from America and Europe, who “could end up being a significant threat to our homeland,” Obama acknowledged Thursday. So he has had to turn back to Iraq, facing nothing but unpalatable options.

If Minimalism doesn’t work, what would? The answer will be different in each case. It won’t generally be to send in the Marines. It will, though, rest on lessons that the country learned, for a time, after 2001: Stateless, ungoverned territories can be dangerous to the United States. Ignoring dangers doesn’t make them go away. If we want countries to help us, including by combating terrorists, we have to help them, too, with training and aid that improves people’s lives.

It’s true that helping states build their capacity to govern is difficult and time-consuming and doesn’t always work. But over the years, the United States has helped more countries, and in more ways, than many Americans realize — including, with Obama’s commitment, Afghanistan. Engagement is hard, but over time it can succeed. Which is more than the other team can say.


Anonymous ThomasF said...

"I think if Obama had really wanted an agreement, and been willing to offer more than a few thousand soldiers, he could have negotiated one."

As a centrist and former supporter of the Iraq War who also wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, I am mystified by the desire by so many to engage in fantasy when discussing the SOFA that governed our exit from Iraq.

Bush badly wanted the SOFA that you claim Obama let slip away, and yet he was forced to negotiate a document whose official title was -

"Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq"

There was never any ambiguity on the Iraqi side that they were negotiating for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. The only "ambiguity" on the U.S. side appears to be thanks to CYA hand-waving on the part of the Bush Administration and other concerned Americans who may have been hoping that a future Iraqi government might change its mind.

As to your specific hypothetical that Obama needed only to offer some more troops (the opposite of what the Iraqi's wanted), Bush offered to leave any number of troops that the Iraqis wanted, in whatever role was acceptable to them. Unfortunately, The Iraqi's wanted the Americans to withdraw completely, and immediately.

The compromise agreement was that the Americans promised to quickly withdraw from the cities, followed by their complete exit by the end of 2011.

The entire history of that negotiation, and the massive political opposition in Iraq to even allowing the American's to stay that long, point to the futility of the American effort to renegotiate it under Obama.

1:36 AM  

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