National Security Network

Dispelling Myths Surrounding the End of the Iraq War

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Report 14 December 2011

Iraq Iraq

Today President Obama spoke at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on the end of the Iraq war. He focused on the sacrifices made, and courage shown, by American troops in the war and noted that they leave Iraq with "heads held high." As the last U.S. troops leave Iraq this month - a move that commands significant expert, popular and international support - proponents of continuing the war have resorted to faulty and highly political responses. Below are several myths about the end of the Iraq war, followed by facts that dispel those myths. Taken together, they underscore a central point: Ending the war will make America safer and is the best way to honor the sacrifices of those who have served.

Myth: Leaving Iraq was based on political calculations.

Fact: The decision to leave is based on strategic considerations: Leaving Iraq will make us safer, by allowing America to rebalance and focus on a broader set of priorities, including Asia, terrorism and fixing the American economy. As Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress writes, "The president is also leading the country in an effort to rebalance its priorities overseas and at home. If the United States had remained overinvested in Iraq as many of the Obama administration's critics argued, it would have presented great opportunity costs for the United States on many other fronts in the world, including Asia and the broader Middle East. This rebalancing of the U.S. national security agenda-previewed nearly two years ago when the Obama administration released its national security strategy in 2010-is a necessary step for restoring America's power and credibility in the world. For far too many years the United States was stuck in the alleyways of Iraq and as a result lost sight of the wider trends in the world."


Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, expands: "The United States has become preoccupied with the Middle East - in certain ways, the wrong Orient - and has not paid adequate attention to East Asia and the Pacific, where much of the twenty-first century's history will be written... This is not to argue that the Middle East is irrelevant or that the U.S. should ignore it. On the contrary, it is still home to massive oil and gas reserves. It is a part of the world where terrorists are active and conflicts have been common. Iran is moving ever closer to developing nuclear weapons; if it does, others may well follow suit. And it is a region now experiencing what could prove to be historic domestic political upheavals. There is also the unique American tie to Israel. Nevertheless, there are grounds for the US doing less in the greater Middle East than it has in recent years: the weakening of al-Qaeda; the poor prospects for peacemaking efforts; and, above all, the mounting evidence that, by any measure, massive nation-building initiatives are not yielding returns commensurate with the investments." [Brian Katulis, 12/13/11. Richard Haass, 11/14/11]

Myth: The Iranians will fill a vacuum in Iraq after American troops leave.

Reality: "The Iraqis have no desire to be a client state of their Persian neighbor." Doug Ollivant, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former director for Iraq on the National Security Staff, recently testified that, "This is a real threat, and the intentions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force units are most assuredly not benign. But the threat is overstated. Iran shares a border and a religion with Iraq, but here the commonalities end. Iran is a majority Persian country, while Iraq is majority Arab. The Iraqis have no desire to be a client state of their Persian neighbor, and they have not forgotten that they fought a long and bloody war with them not so long ago." Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta further noted, "Our long-term security partnership with Iraq is part of a broader commitment by the United States to peace and security throughout the region. Our message to our allies, our friends, and our potential adversaries is very clear. We have more than 40,000 American troops that remain in the Gulf region. We are not going anywhere, and we will continue to reassure our partners, deter aggressors, and counter those seeking to create instability." It's also worth remembering that the biggest decision that empowered Iranian influence in Iraq was the decision to fight the Iraq war in the first place. As Matt Duss and Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress note, "The end of Saddam Hussein's regime removed Iran's most-hated enemy (with whom it fought a hugely destructive war in the 1980s) and removed the most significant check on Iran's regional hegemonic aspirations. Many of Iraq's key Iraqi Shia Islamist and Kurdish leaders enjoy close ties to Iran, facilitating considerable influence for Iran in the new Iraq." [Doug Ollivant, 11/15/11. Leon Panetta, 11/15/11. Matt Duss and Peter Juul, 12/13/11]

Myth: The administration was out-negotiated by Iraq.

Reality: U.S. stood by its bottom lines: that Iraqis lead on their own security, and U.S. troops will not be there without standard immunity protections. As Major General (ret) Paul Eaton, NSN senior advisor and former commander in charge of training Iraqi security forces, has said: "The United States has provided opportunities for Iraqis to ask for an American troop presence beyond the date agreed to by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in 2008. They have not asked for that. It would be inappropriate to keep troops without Iraqi legal immunity for our servicemembers." Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin seconded those points in a statement after the outcome of negotiations was announced, saying: "Today's announcement effectively implements U.S. policy to end our troop presence in Iraq by the end of this year, policy established under President Bush in consultation with Iraq's government. While the United States will continue to have an important relationship with Iraq, that nation's fate rests with its own people and its government, as it should. I was prepared to support a continued presence of U.S. trainers in Iraq beyond the end of this year. But in light of Iraq's refusal to eliminate the possibility that U.S. troops would face prosecutions in Iraqi courts, President Obama has made the right decision." [Paul Eaton, 10/22/11. Carl Levin, 10/21/11]

Myth: The U.S. is withdrawing too quickly; when U.S. troops leave, Iraq will descend into chaos.

Reality: Challenges remain, but a continued American troop presence still will not solve them; America will continue to have a robust civilian presence. As Douglas Ollivant, senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, "There are real challenges and for many of its people, it remains an unpleasant place to live. But the problems that remain do not lend themselves to military solutions. I believe the most likely outcome of the removal of the U.S. troop presence will be a slow normalization of Iraqi politics as they realize that we are no longer present to either assist or take the blame." President Obama, in his appearance with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, earlier this week, detailed Iraq's progress thus far, as well as some of the challenges ahead: "Iraq faces great challenges, but today reflects the impressive progress that Iraqis have made. Millions have cast their ballots -- some risking or giving their lives -- to vote in free elections. The Prime Minister leads Iraq's most inclusive government yet. Iraqis are working to build institutions that are efficient and independent and transparent. Economically, Iraqis continue to invest in their infrastructure and development. And I think it's worth considering some remarkable statistics.  In the coming years, it's estimated that Iraq's economy will grow even faster than China's or India's.  With oil production rising, Iraq is on track to once again be one of the region's leading oil producers. With respect to security, Iraqi forces have been in the lead for the better part of three years -- patrolling the streets, dismantling militias, conducting counterterrorism operations.  Today, despite continued attacks by those who seek to derail Iraq's progress, violence remains at record lows."

The U.S. will also keep a significant civilian presence in Iraq. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, "[T]he meetings [between Obama and Maliki] also underscored the nations' continuing ties, with Mr. Obama making it clear that the United States would supply Iraq with military hardware and training for years to come. The administration announced it would sell 18 more F-16 fighter jets to Iraq, helping rebuild an air force destroyed by war, and Mr. Maliki said he was seeking other military equipment. History will judge whether the decision to go to war was a mistake, Mr. Obama said. But he and Mr. Maliki both tried to keep their focus on the future, describing a partnership that they said would extend far beyond security to trade, energy investment and educational exchanges. Iraq's economy was projected to grow faster than that of China or India, Mr. Obama noted." [Douglas Ollivant, 11/15/11. Barack Obama, 12/12/11. New York Times, 12/12/11]


What We're Reading

Vladimir Putin will portray himself in a marathon television phone-in as a man in touch with his country despite nationwide weekend protests.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said that he remains concerned that a defense bill containing provisions about military custody for terrorism suspects could interfere with the FBI's ability to investigate terrorist incidents and interrogate those believed responsible.

Iran may move its uranium enrichment facilities to safer locations if this becomes necessary, a senior military commander said, reflecting Iran's worries about a possible military strike against the sites at the center of Tehran's standoff with the West.

Thousands of former supporters of Muammar Qaddafi who fled their town after revenge attacks will try to return, their leaders said, risking a confrontation with their neighbors.


Army defectors opened fire on a military convoy in central Syria, killing eight soldiers, in retaliation for a deadly attack on civilians, activists say.


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, standing less than 34 miles from the Pakistan border, told U.S. troops they have reached a turning point in the war, even as he demanded that Islamabad must do more to secure its side of the border.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, who unexpectedly flew to the United Arab Emirates for what was officially described as medical treatment, will be discharged from a hospital, though it remained unclear when Mr. Zardari would return to Pakistan.

Pressure mounted on Germany's president to explain a 500,000 euro ($659,000) private loan that he received at below-market rates from the wife of a wealthy businessman before he took the nation's top office.

Chinese leaders pledged to maintain growth and social stability amid rising global risks by stepping up social spending and expanding domestic consumption.

Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah swore in a new cabinet with only minor changes to the government that resigned in November over allegations of corruption.

Commentary of the Day

Thomas Friedman warns of Americans who pledge support to Israel and Palestine to exclusion of American interests.

Chris Preble contends that the dwindling but vocal few who call for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq indefinitely cannot fairly accuse President Obama of implementing a reckless policy driven by the political calendar.

Dennis Ross says there is still time to block Iran's nuclear program with diplomatic means.