National Security Network

After Six Years, A New Consensus On Iraq

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Report 20 March 2009

Iraq Iraq Bush administration iraq Iraqi government neoconservatives Obama Administration Progressives


Six years after the war began, a popular and political consensus has emerged on the way forward. The last year has seen dramatic shifts toward the progressive approach in the debate over Iraq. At this point a year ago progressives were arguing that the U.S. should begin to withdraw and hand over Iraq’s future to Iraqis. Conservatives led by the Bush administration and Senator McCain argued against timetables and for an indefinite presence. However Iraqi opposition – highlighted at negotiations between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government over a Status of Forces Agreement -- significantly undercut the conservative approach. Prime Minister Maliki’s statement in the summer that candidate Obama’s timeline for withdrawal was the “right timeframe,” as well as the insistence from the Iraqi people and the government that the U.S. begin to withdraw, made the conservative approach unsustainable.

Last month, conservatives were generally supportive of President Obama’s announcement that he would follow through on the progressive approach he laid out during the campaign.  Despite attacking Obama’s Iraq plan during the campaign, McCain recently endorsed Obama’s approach to begin withdrawing troops, as has House Minority Leader John Boehner. Additionally, the American public, according to recent surveys, is overwhelmingly supportive of the approach of the Obama administration. This new consensus represents an important turning point in the debate over Iraq -- and an important early victory for the Administration’s ability to enunciate and build support for national security policies that are pragmatic, progressive and widely supported.

A year ago, progressives argued for redeploying and handing control to Iraqis, while conservatives opposed any timetable and argued for an indefinite American presence in Iraq.  One year ago, progressives were establishing the groundwork for a way out of Iraq, even as the Bush administration and conservatives sought an endless occupation.  In 2007, a Center for American Progress report found: “The ‘no end in sight’ strategy fosters a culture of dependency among Iraqis by propping up certain members of Iraq’s national government without fundamentally changing Iraq’s political dynamics.”  In August, 2007, before an audience at the Wilson Center, Obama stated: “There is no military solution in Iraq. Only Iraq’s leaders can settle the grievances at the heart of Iraq’s civil war. We must apply pressure on them to act, and our best leverage is reducing our troop presence. And we must also do the hard and sustained diplomatic work in the region on behalf of peace and stability.”  But the Bush administration opposed any move toward announcing a future exit  and instead sought to negotiate bilateral agreement that would ratify America’s long term presence in Iraq. McCain said in March 2008 that “It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal.” The New York Times reported, “With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials... At the same time, the administration faces opposition from Democrats at home, who warn that the agreements that the White House seeks would bind the next president by locking in Mr. Bush’s policies and a long-term military presence.” Senator McCain said on Face the Nation, “I don’t think Americans are concerned if we’re there for one hundred years or a thousand years or ten thousand years.”  [CAP, 06/07. Senator Barack Obama, 8/01/07. John McCain, 3/26/08. NY Times, 01/25/08. John McCain, 1/6/08]

Iraqi leaders responded by taking an increasingly active role, rejected the conservative approach, and were more supportive of the progressive approach which dovetailedwith their own preferences.    In July, in one of the many signs of Iraqis exercising greater influence over the SOFA negotiations, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari “told reporters that some headway had been made, but that negotiators were deadlocked over issues like the extent of Iraqi control over American military operations and the right of American soldiers to detain suspects without the approval of Iraqi authorities,” according to the New York Times.  Iraqi politicians grew outspoken in their demands for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, something the Bush administration opposed but had become a key element of the progressive position on Iraq.  NPR reported: “The Iraqi government is now calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, but the Bush administration is trying to downplay those calls despite a re-ignited debate on the presidential campaign trail. The Bush administration has been trying to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq to make sure U.S. troops have the legal right to be there once a United Nations mandate ends late this year.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made clear the invitation will not be open-ended. His national security adviser told reporters that Iraq cannot accept any agreement unless it has specific dates for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.”  Iraqi pressure culminated in the July announcement that the Bush administration would accept demands for a timetable for withdrawal.  “Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed in a statement that Iraq and the United States had agreed ‘to specify a time horizon to achieve a full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces and allow for its withdrawal from Iraq,’” said the Washington Post.  Though the specifics of the withdrawal timetable were not yet established, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was supportive of the progressive strategy laid out by Senator Obama for a 16 month timetable for withdrawal, saying “that, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” [NY Times, 7/3/08. NPR, 7/09/08. Washington Post, 7/19/08. LA Times, 7/20/08. Spiegel, 7/19/08]

A consensus has emerged around the progressive approach to Iraq.  Politico writes that Obama’s plan “does not back away in major ways from his pledge to withdraw U.S. combat forces. Instead of a 16-month withdrawal period, as he originally called for, most of the troops now in Iraq would be withdrawn over the next 19 months, leaving by August 2010, senior officials said. Even under this slightly delayed timetable, the Pentagon would bring at least 92,000 troops home over the next year and a half, a massive exodus that is likely to satisfy most Americans that he is fulfilling his promise to bring the war to a close.” This plan enjoys support among Democrats, Republicans and Iraqis.  In response to Obama’s withdrawal plan House Republican leader John Boehner said, “The plan put forward by President Obama continues our strategy of bringing troops home from Iraq as they succeed in stabilizing the country.  I believe he has outlined a responsible approach that retains maximum flexibility to reconsider troop levels and to respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant.”  Even “Sen. John McCain, who lost his White House bid to Barack Obama last fall, is supporting the president's new plan to pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the fall of 2010,” according to CBS.  And the New York Times reported that, “Mr. McCain said during the private meeting that he thought the withdrawal plan was thoughtful and well prepared, according to several people in the room.”  The plan also enjoys support among the American people.  CNN reports that, “Seven out of ten people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday, the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, say they support the president's announced plan to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq by August of next year but keep a force of 35,000 to 50,000 in the country.” [Politico, 2/27/09. John Boehner, 2/27/09. CBS News, 2/27/09. New York Times, 2/26/09. CNN, 3/19/09]

What We’re Reading

President Obama sent a video message to the Iranian people marking the Iranian New Year and offering a “new beginning.”  Iran responded that it expects “fundamental changes” in U.S. policy and will not forget America’s role in past incidents.

The IMF cut forecasts and warned the G-20 that it must tackle the global economic crisis immediately at the April 2 summit.

Benjamin Netanyahu gets more time to form a government, and seeks a broader coalition.

Soldiers’ accounts of killings in Gaza spark outrage in Israel and raise calls for an inquiry.  Israel arrested 10 Hamas leaders.

The U.S. courts former Afghan warlords in pursuit of stability.

Former U.S. high-level diplomats, including Henry Kissinger and James Baker, meet with Russian officials and President Dmitry Medvedev to try to restore U.S.-Russian relations ahead of important meetings next month.  Russian planes flew close over U.S. ships engaged in exercises with South Korea.

North Korea re-opens the military hotline with South Korea.

Sex scandals at the CIA force questions of how the agency polices itself.

Following the provincial elections, new political alliances emerge in Iraq across sectarian lines.

The jobless rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is at 11.2%.

The African Union suspends Madagascar over the presidential coup.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times looks at statistics from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iraq veteran Jon Soltz looks at the outlook for Iraq six years after the initial invasion.

The LA Times applauds the fact that Mexico’s drug war is “finally getting Washington’s attention.”

David Brooks explains how the U.S. currently has “perverse cosmic myopia,” an inability to focus on the most important tasks at hand.

Timothy Garton Ash comments on how Britain’s torture revelations characterize and shape the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S.

The Christian Science Monitor examines the architectural and urban planning aspects of Israel’s ongoing fight against militants in Gaza, explaining how the militants use of subterranean bunkers and tunnels may affect how Israel’s military approaches the conflict in the future.