President Obama ventured into the lion’s den yesterday, visiting the Pentagon, over which he is now Commander-in-Chief. The highlight of his visit was a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Obama said a major purpose of his visit was to hear what the JCS thought about issues facing the United States. One of the issues discussed, unsurprisingly, was withdrawal from Iraq. Equally unsurprisingly, the military advisors cautioned against the 16-month deadline for total combat troop withdrawal on which the President ran in the election. The Army, in particular, thinks that is too fast and prefers (probably reluctantly) meeting the deadline of total troop withdrawal by the end of 2011 set in the Status of Force Agreement signed in Decebmer 200 that gives the military an extra 18 months or so in Iraq.
Why does the military feel this way? The answer is that they believe the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more likely it is that Iraq will be a stable place that won’t revert to chaotic civil war after we leave. General Ray Odierno, in an interview yesterday, summarized the case: “The longer we go [staying country], if we get rhough the elections, we get closer and closer to not being able to backslide.”
The key assumption behind this logic is that American continued presence aids stabilization by creating a physical shield behind which the Iraqis reach the kind of political accord that would lead to a durable peace. Thus, Odierno maintains, US troops are needed to counter the “drivers of instability” such as Kurd-Arab competition over places like Kirkuk. The evidence for the viability of this approach is the surge.
This approach (it is hardly a strategy) is questionable. It starts from the assumption that the surge has “worked” to aid stability in the country, as witnessed by reduced casualty rates. That may be true, but it also may be false or misleading. True, violence is down, but why? One possible reason is the surge, but there are alternatives. One is that the United States essentially bought off the Sunni resistance by paying them to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq and promised their integration into the Iraqi armed forces. The former occurred, the latter apparently is not, meaning continuing Sunni cooperation cannot be taken for granted. A second reason is that much of the violence between 2004 and the onset of the surge was really about ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds out of one another’s claimed territories, a process largely completed by the time of the surge except in places like Kirkuk, where violence remains. American presence–except as Sunni paymaster–had little to do with either of these phenomena. If they, rather than the surge, were responsible for the reduction in violence, then the argument for slowing Obama’s withdrawal intentions is weakened.
But there is more to it than that. Odierno says he can imagine, at some unspecified point in the future, a time when the U.S. would only need about one-third of its current 140,000 troops in Iraq, hardly the President’s position. It is one thing for Odierno to say this in private as a statement of his beliefs; to say it publicly in opposition to his commander-in-chief’s known preferences borders on insubordination; it certainly lacks tact.
Why? Here the jockeying becomes obvious. It is no surprise that George W. Bush’s hand-picked Middle Eastern military team supports policies unlike those of Obama. Indeed, the Army, or at least Central Command, may sincerely believe that staying longer will yield a superior outcome, although that presumption is itself suspect. I would bet neither Odierno or David Petraeus voted for the president. So what? Their candidate lost, and if they take their oaths seriously, they will present their positions in private, wait for the President’s determination, then salute smartly and either carry out his orders or resign in protest. It really is as simple as that.
So why the public jockeying and posturing? Could it be that America’s supposedly apolitical military knows they have President Obama in a bad spot right now? Obama is in the middle of an increasingly political, partisan battle over the economy, and needs all the political capital he has for that issue. Publicly taking on the military right now would reinforce his opponents on the economy (largely the same group as his military detractors) and create more friction he clearly does not need. Thus, it may be that the proponents of prolonging the Iraq involvement feel they can get away with what amounts to defiance of their commander-in-chief.
In 1993, new President Bill Clinton got in trouble with the military hierarchy over gays in the military: the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Like Clinton, new President Obama is not particularly popular among the military brass, and defying their wishes on Iraqi withdrawal could be, or appear, parallel to Clinton overriding the military on gays. Clinton never really recovered from his early confrontation with the military, and Odierno et. al. may be calculating that President Obama may be reluctant to stir up a parallel hornet’s nest.
Will their strategy work? In the short term, it may well, and then we will see how long Obama’s memory is and how sharp his elbows are. If I were Ray Odierno, I think Iwould start keeping my opinions and expert analysis contrary to my boss’s beliefs to myself or start looking for a post-retirement job.