In February 2009, President Obama flew to Camp Lejeune , a US Marine base in North Carolina, to fulfill a campaign promise, indeed the one campaign promise that had galvanized critical support for his candidacy early in 2007 when he remained largely an unknown first term US Senator. There amidst a crowd of some 6,000 Marines, the President delivered a passionate speech outlining the end of combat operations in Iraq, a war that at point had lasted over six years claiming 4,425 Americans dead, costing well over a trillion dollars while laying waste to Iraq plunging that country into a bitter sectarian civil war from which it has yet to fully emerge. Then he intoned, "Let me say this as plainly as I can - by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
Of the 142,000 US troops then in Iraq, some 92,000 were withdrawn by August 2010. The mission at that point changed, from combat to one that dealt primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism. Even if some 50,000 US troops did remain past the end of combat operations in August 2010, they would be withdrawn in toto by the end of 2011. The President's words were as clear and crisp as the weather on that February day: "Under the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honour that they have earned."
That was then, this is now. There are currently some 47,000 US troops still stationed in Iraq, there ostensibly to train Iraqi forces and to engage in counter-terrorism. This week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, making his 13th and likely his last trip to Iraq, mentioned the possibility of an US presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. From the Army Times:
U.S. officials, including at least some top military officers, believe that Iraq has significant gaps in its defense capabilities, including a lack of air power to defend its own skies. They see this as posing a risk, in the absence of U.S. forces, that the political and security gains that have been achieved over the past eight years could unravel.
In remarks to U.S. troops at Camp Marez, Gates said that in his talks with a full range of top Iraqi officials they had indicated an interest in an extended U.S. troop presence.
“We’re open to that,” Gates said. “It obviously would be a presence that’s a fraction of the size that we have here now.”
He mentioned no numbers, but there currently are about 47,000 U.S. troops in the country.
One soldier asked Gates how much longer the U.S. would stay if asked.
“That would be part of any negotiation,” Gates replied.
He said it could be for “a finite period of time” at an agreed number of troops, or it could be a phased drawdown for two or three years beyond 2011.
Or, he said, it could be a long-term U.S. role to advise and assist Iraqi security forces “that just becomes part of the regular military-to-military relationship.” That appeared to be a reference to arrangements such as those that have existed in Japan and Korea for more than 50 years, in which U.S. troops are based there to train with local forces and act as a regional deterrent.
Speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, Secretary Gates said the United States would keep troops in Iraq beyond December 31 if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate an extension of the final withdrawal date. The takeaway from Secretary Gates' comments is that the Administration is laying the groundwork for a long-term, permanent presence in Iraq akin to our presence in Japan, Korea and Germany.
Certainly, there are segments of the Iraqi population, such as the Kurds in the north, that would welcome a continued American presence in Iraq. On the other hand, there are segments that remain diametrically opposed to any continued US military presence in Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera, Moqtada al Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric who recently returned to the country from exile in Iran, has threatened to revive his Mehdi Army and relaunch armed resistance against continued US presence in the country. Al Jazeera correspondent Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that this time Sadr had not only warned against a continuing US troop presence but also against the contractors who prevent ordinary Iraqis from gainful employment.
Here at home, it is hard to figure how the news of an extended stay in Iraq a la Japan or a la Germany is going to play. Certainly the war hawks like Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman are bound to be pleased but the move is unlikely to win President Obama any votes in his re-election campaign. In fact, it is likely to further alienate his already rather disenchanted base even if news like this is largely confined to back pages of American journalism.
One more point really needs to be made. Iraq in 2011 is not Japan or Germany 1946 nor is it Korea 1953. Iraq is Iraq, a country that remains a match stick away from going up in flames. While we certainly owe the Iraqis much, having torn their country asunder, the idea that we can garrison the globe ad infinitum is a non-starter. In this recent budget showdown, Democrats fought for and won a $2 billion cut from the Department of Defense, knocking the military appropriation for the rest of the year down to $513 billion. Meanwhile, the Republicans won over $36 billion cuts to social programs and infrastructure plans. At some point, we on the left must engage in a full throttle defense of domestic priorities and cast aside some of our global ambitions of an empire without end.