War Stories

War By Other Means

Why it’s safe to ignore Republican criticism of Obama’s policy in Iraq.

Should the U.S. leave soldiers in Iraq past the agreed-upon pull-out date?

Photograph by Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images.

This is getting all too predictable. President Obama announced that all American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, in compliance not only with his election pledge but also with the terms of a U.S.-Iraq treaty. In response, the Republicans moaned and hollered that Obama is playing politics with national security, or that he could have negotiated a better outcome, or that he’s surrendering to Iranian domination.

It’s a safe bet that, had Obama announced he was keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq for the indefinite future, most of the same Republicans would have moaned and hollered that he was breaking a promise to the American people, draining the Treasury, and boosting the chance of a terrorist attack by Muslims angered at our continued occupation.

More than this, their complaints are unfounded, based on either ignorance or deliberate distortion.

First, it is crucial to note that this withdrawal and its timetable were set in a treaty called the Status of Forces Agreement, signed Nov. 17, 2008, not by Obama (who wasn’t president yet) but rather by George W. Bush. SOFAs, as they’re often abbreviated, are treaties—bearing the force of national and international law—that presidents sign with each country that hosts U.S. armed forces. They set the terms and conditions under which those forces can stay.

The SOFA with Iraq states, in Article 24: “All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, waters, and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.” That’s as definitive as these things get.

Article 30 does allow for amendments to the treaty, but only in the event of the “formal written approval of both parties and in accordance with the constitutional procedures in both countries.” For the past few months, U.S. officials (including some former Bush officials called back to join the delegation) have tested the waters to see if Iraqi lawmakers would allow—or, more to the point, wanted—an amendment that would permit some of the current 40,000 American troops to stay on. Their conclusion: The Iraqis had no such desire, and not much need.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and some others have suggested that the sticking point was over a clause giving U.S. troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution for alleged crimes. This is a standard feature of such treaties, including of the earlier arrangement with Iraq. It’s true that the Iraqis refused to grant the immunity. But there was no leeway to negotiate an exemption, because the main sticking point was, and is, that the Iraqis simply do not want American troops in their country anymore. One U.S. official in Iraq said in a phone interview, “Even our erstwhile friends [among Iraqi politicians] want us out by the end of the year. None of them lifted a finger to keep us.”

Do Obama’s Republican critics, who have made such a big deal of Iraq’s bourgeoning democracy, really think Obama should (or could) have disregarded the democratically elected parliament of a sovereign nation—a sovereign ally, at that—in order to keep U.S. troops on that nation’s soil, allegedly for its own interest (as defined by us, not by them)? We would then become nothing but an occupying power, sure to trigger an escalation of armed resistance and appear hypocritical in the extreme.

Meanwhile, we have been withdrawing troops steadily for some time. And so far, violence has not been on the rise. In fact, it’s been sharply declining.

The Status of Forces Agreement also stated, as a transitional step toward the 2011 total pullout: “All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and towns … no later than 30 June 2009.” When Obama ordered that move into effect on schedule, many of his critics predicted that all hell would break loose, maybe even a return to civil war. And initially there was a small spurt of attacks. But since then, overall, Iraqi civilian deaths have gone down by more than half. (In 2008, on average 24 Iraqi civilians were killed each day by car bombs, suicide bombs, gunfire, or executions. So far in 2011, the average has been 11 per day—the lowest number since the war began in 2003. These figures are from the reputable private research group Iraq Body Count.)

Some also worried at the time that American casualties would rise as the troops pulled back, because the soldiers would have fewer comrades in arms to protect them. In fact, though, U.S. fatalities have gone way down, from a total of 314 in 2008 to just 49 so far in 2011—again, by far the lowest number since the war began. (These figures are from the equally reputable private group, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.)

The number of militant attacks is also the lowest level on record, between zero and seven per day, most of them ineffective. One U.S. official in Iraq, who at first favored keeping a few thousand troops on the ground but has now concluded they would do little good, said in a phone conversation, “The truth is, 99 percent of our troops now [in Iraq] are doing nothing.”

In short, the decline in violence that began in 2007—with the combination of the U.S. surge, the shift in U.S. strategy, the Sunni Awakening, and the Sadr cease-fire—didn’t backslide. Instead, it has continued and, in fact, accelerated.

Finally, what about the Iranians? Will they fill the vacuum left by the U.S. troops and apply stiff pressure on their fellow Shiites who dominate the Iraqi government?

This is the one complaint in the critics’ catalog that has at least some potential validity. The Iranians have long entertained ambitions of a major power in their region. A weakened and undefended Iraq on their border gives them extra room to stretch, especially if the Iraqi government isn’t innately hostile, as was Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war; the Iranian leaders can be expected to try to gain influence with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated regime, whether their motives are offensive, defensive, or a mixture of the two.

However, three things are worth noting. First, Iran has not stepped up its nefarious activities across the border since U.S. troops retreated from Iraqi cities two years ago. Second, reports indicate that the Iraqi Shiite leaders are not as welcoming of Iranians as the stereotypes hold, or as they in fact used to be. Nationalist suspicions and occasional hostilities have come to dominate their attitudes.

Third, the Iraqis are not going to be entirely defenseless. In the past few years, the United States has signed contracts to sell about $16 billion worth of weapons to Iraq, including F-16 jet fighters, M-1A1 battle tanks, C-130 transport jets, and helicopters armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. As is routine practice among U.S. arms customers around the world, these weapons arrive with technicians, trainers, and advisers, many of them military personnel, all reporting to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation. These trainers, who in Iraq’s case will probably number several hundred, cannot legally—and almost certainly will not, as a practical matter—drive or fly or shoot these weapons in actual military operations. But if Iran did do something foolish, like invade Iraq, they could, if requested, render advice and assistance to help their ally fight back.

Finally, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted during a recent visit to Bali, the U.S. military has 40,000 troops in the region, half of them on the border in Kuwait, as well as a couple of aircraft carriers within range. And, though the details haven’t been announced, or perhaps worked out, Obama and Maliki have pledged to sign some sort of security arrangement, which would probably imply letting at least the air and naval firepower flow in the event of a drastic emergency.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi soil may spur the leaders of neighboring countries that fear Iranian expansion—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in particular—to form a common policy instead of basking, as they’ve done for years, in the knowledge that the Americans will take the risks and pay the costs by themselves.

In the face of all this, Republican presidential candidates, senators, and their friendly pundits should be forced to say how many troops they want to keep in Iraq—for how long, to what end, and at what cost—and how they as president would have convinced the Iraqis to let them do so. Until they do that, no one should be fooled into taking them seriously.