Ron Radosh

Obama's Choice in Iraq

The current issue of The New York Review of Books has an interesting discussion of two new books on Iraq by Joshua Hammer, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa and the Middle East. Since the economic crisis, many have tended to forget about the situation facing our country in Iraq, and the critical issue of how the new administration will deal with it.

Whenever Iraq came up during the campaign, Obama’s supporters stressed the need for the United States to pull out as quickly as possible. The issue of the surge and its success was ignored or said to be irrelevant. After all, they argued, the need for a surge would not have been an issue had we not gone there in the first place.

How refreshing, therefore, to finally read in a major liberal publication Hammer’s observations   while discussing Bing West’s book The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq. “The Iraq of November 2008, Hammer writes, “is a far safer place than it was one year ago.” He attributes the change to two factors. First was the decision of General George Casey to institute a new policy in December 2006, when American troops were sent to live in actual combat outposts, where they would live with Iraqis and regularly patrol violent areas.

Second was the decision of Casey’s replacement, General David Petraeus, to institute the policy of the surge. This counterinsurgency strategy, Hammer writes, “made protection of Iraqi civilians paramount. His effective management of the 30,000-man ‘surge’ cut down the activities of Shia deaths quads, stopped infiltrations by Sunni suicide bombers, and dramatically reduced the violence.”  This policy was especially effective when combined with working with local Sunnis tribes to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda cells in the country.   This progress, however, could be threatened by the al-Maliki government’s hesitation to welcome the Sunnis  and their Sons of Iraq armed force into a united Iraqi army, and to give up Shia dominance in order to form a truly compromise government. So the peace is indeed, as Petraeus has said, rather fragile.

And here is where Barack Obama will face a major problem as soon as he takes office. Will he honor his many campaign promises to withdraw from Iraq and pull the United States out of the area, at whatever cost? Such a course of action is a given as far as Obama’s original anti-war base is concerned. The netroots, the MoveOn.org members and the Left in general always saw the U.S. action to overturn Saddam as unnecessary, and caused only by the Bush administration’s “lying us into war.” Their great hope was that Barack Obama evidently agreed with them, and once President, would do as they wished. And here is the nub of the issue, as Joshua Hammer puts it:

“While maintaining that Iraq is ‘on the road to stability’, West “writes that a rapid pullout of US troops ‘may shatter’ the country, deepen the sectarian rift, and lead to renewed war. Yet West offers no insights into how to consolidate the security gains made up to this point. He supports the continued training of Iraqi security forces—who have made great progress over the past year and a half—and the gradual drawdown of US forces, while insisting that ‘some American forces will be needed for years, in steadily decreasing numbers.’”

It is no wonder that Hammer tells us that “many of the American troops I met expressed anxiety about the future. Should the Shia majority not agree to integrate the Sunnis and the former Sons of Iraq fighting force into a new Iraqi force, Hammer fears that the sectarian tensions in Iraq “seem powerful enough to pull Iraq apart again.” And one problem is the status-of-forces agreement  negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq that was finalized today.  That calls for a hard and fast agreement for withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 2011. And President-elect Obama has also promised a sixteen month time frame for such a withdrawal.

The question thus remains: how will Barack Obama respond? Will he pay attention to the situation on the ground, modify his original promises and call for renegotiation of the status -of -forces contract, or stay loyal to ideological campaign promises? We must hope for the best.