Topic A -- Obama's Plan for Iraq

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Post asked foreign policy experts for their impressions of President Obama's speech at Camp Lejeune on Friday. Below are contributions from Randy Scheunemann, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Meghan O'Sullivan, Jessica Mathews, Qubad J. Talabani, Andrew J. Bacevich, Douglas J. Feith, and Danielle Pletka.

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN

Founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq in 2002; director of foreign policy and national security for the McCain-Palin campaign

It is an affirmation of our political system that President Obama has traveled so far, so fast from candidate Obama's position on Iraq. Instead of supporting an immediate cutoff of funds for U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama now requests billions for their continued presence. Instead of claiming that American forces were baby-sitting a civil war, Obama recognizes their sacrifice has given Iraqis a "precious opportunity." Instead of promising to "end this war now" with an artificial 16-month deadline, Obama has wisely moved on.

His plan features a longer timetable, commander flexibility, tactical adjustments and the presence of some 50,000 American troops for years. It is fully consistent with the 2008 Bush-Maliki agreement. Some, including on-again, off-again foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, predicted this evolution months before Election Day. Not surprisingly, the antiwar left is upset. Those committed to retreat and defeat in Iraq were key supporters of candidate Obama. Fortunately, the realities of office led President Obama to understand what many had argued for years: Too rapid a withdrawal would jeopardize gains won with huge cost in American blood and treasure and leaving Iraq the wrong way would have immense consequences for our national security. Now, we should all hope President Obama continues to listen to Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, rebuffs his left-wing critics and stays the course with an Iraq policy John McCain might have formulated.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI

National security adviser to President Jimmy Carter

There's no way of knowing what will happen in Iraq after the United States disengages militarily. The presence of American forces there contains the internal pressures for conflict over unresolved issues (e.g., the future of Kirkuk). It is almost certain that there will be some political violence in the wake of American withdrawal as the Iraqis sort out their political arrangements.

That high probability dictates an important policy conclusion: American disengagement should be undertaken in parallel with an ongoing conference of all of Iraq's neighbors (Iran and Syria in particular) regarding political stability in Iraq. All share a common interest: that conflicts within Iraq should not affect their interests.

A conference on regional security might also help to facilitate a needed U.S.-Iranian dialogue by reducing the Iranian stake in having nuclear weapons. Much the same logic applies to the desirability of simultaneous but tangible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue. The more rapidly that issue moves toward a resolution, the greater the prospects for stability in the region. In brief, the withdrawal from Iraq has to be undertaken with a wider strategic design in mind.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN

Lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School; deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007

President Obama's declared shift of the primary mission of U.S. forces from "population security" to a more focused set of counterterrorism, training and force-protection tasks by August 2010 is both welcome and reasonable. This evolution was originally advocated by the Baker-Hamilton commission in 2006 and is actually already well underway. And just as the population security mission required more forces to execute (hence the "surge"), a narrower mission set will require fewer.

But two key issues remain unclear: First, does the Obama administration view Iraq's stability as fundamental to U.S. interests? Iraq's positive trajectories seem to absolve policymakers from answering this question. Unfortunately, though, it is unlikely that Iraq's progress will be linear. What should be done if the security situation deteriorates in 2009 or 2010? What is more important ¿ adherence to the 18-month timetable or safeguarding Iraqi and regional stability?

Second, what is the U.S. political strategy, and how does it connect to the military strategy the president outlined? Earlier statements suggest the administration thinks a more definitive timeline for withdrawal would give it greater leverage to orchestrate political compromises. This could lead American officials to push for a "grand bargain" in which all outstanding political issues are resolved by Iraqi leaders simultaneously. Such an effort would be a misreading of Iraq's politics. Rather than seeking to induce compromise by increasing insecurity during an election year, America should focus on helping Iraq manage (if not necessarily resolve) its political differences peacefully and should encourage the slow but ongoing evolution of Iraq's political system away from inflexible sectarian politics. This evolution ¿ not a grand political orchestration ¿ is the key to the final resolution of Iraq's political issues.

JESSICA MATHEWS

President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

President Obama's willingness to take on enormous political risks is already almost commonplace. Ending the war, while unequivocally the right thing, is another one. After six years, it makes no difference whether U.S. troops leave in 16 months or 18. The risk for Obama and the challenge for the country lie in what we will do if -- some would say when -- serious violence erupts as U.S. troops depart.

The U.S. presence interrupted a struggle for political power that always follows removal of a government and eventually forced it into nonviolent channels. But the struggle is far from over. Recent political accommodations are extremely fragile, and it is likely that many angry groups have chosen to lie low until the Americans are gone.

Stable agreements to share power emerge only after the parties have tested each other's strength and will and their desire to fight has burned out. History shows that this takes many years, especially when all sides are heavily armed.

So the United States may face a departure in 2011 in the face of great instability. President Obama understands that could happen even if our troops were to stay five more years. There is no substitute for Iraqis sorting out their own political future. But after so much sacrifice and bloodshed, it may not feel much like a victory.

QUBAD J. TALABANI

Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States

No doubt the security situation in Iraq has improved, but the country has made little progress toward reaching political accommodation.

Fundamental political questions that remain include divergent understandings about the need to adhere to the country's constitution and its status as the supreme law of the land; acceptance of Iraq's federal framework; finalizing the administrative status of cities such as Kirkuk in accordance with the process set forth in the constitution; and reaching agreement on the elusive laws on hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing to ensure that all communities in Iraq share equally in its vast resources.

The United States will not be able to leave behind a stable and functioning Iraq until these disputes are resolved. Resolution will require continuing robust U.S. engagement with the federal government in Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and other representatives of Iraq's diverse communities.

Iraq is too important to its region and the world for its future to be left to chance. Allowing these issues to fester while the United States prepares to withdraw is a prescription for reversing all the progress that has been achieved on security over the past year. The KRG remains committed to Iraq's constitution as we seek a political settlement on the outstanding issues.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH

Professor of history and international relations at Boston University; author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism"

A promise to end the war in Iraq formed the cornerstone of Barack Obama's run for the White House. Yet his announced "withdrawal" plan ends nothing. It serves chiefly to reorder the Pentagon's operational priorities. Meanwhile, the "Long War" -- conceived in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and now in its eighth year with no end in sight -- continues.

For President Bush, Iraq was priority No. 1. He expected victory to yield a rich strategic and political payoff. He neither gained victory nor reaped any payoff. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Long War's other fronts, languished as afterthoughts. Obama's plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq to a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops now transforms the Persian Gulf into a secondary theater. In effect, the president is orienting the Pentagon's attention back to Central Asia, the front where the war began in 2001. Yet in doing so, he implicitly recommits the United States to what has become an open-ended military endeavor.

Lost in the shuffling of troops is any clear understanding of that endeavor's strategic rationale. Iraq alone has cost the United States a trillion dollars or more. The putative success of the "surge" notwithstanding, we have achieved exceedingly modest and tenuous gains. To imagine that simply trying harder in Afghanistan and Pakistan will produce a happier outcome is surely a fantasy.

Bush hoped to transform the Middle East. Obama's instincts point in a different direction. To preserve the American way of life, he appears intent on changing it, a project with vast economic, social and even cultural implications.

The Long War is incompatible with that project. Protracted war or domestic reform: We may be able to afford one. We cannot afford both. So Obama must choose. If, instead of choosing, he tries to finesse the Long War -- and shifting the weight of U.S. military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan amounts to little more than temporizing -- his reform agenda is likely to be stillborn.

DOUGLAS J. FEITH

Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute; undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005; author of "War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism."

President Obama highlighted U.S. accomplishments in Iraq: doing away with Saddam Hussein's regime, helping establish a sovereign government, dealing al-Qaeda in Iraq "a serious blow," and lifting Iraq out of "tyranny and terror." His plan for ending the war is designed to preserve the value of these accomplishments. Rightly, his emphasis is on securing U.S. success, not cutting losses.

His speech effectively repudiated the extreme antiwar rhetoric of recent years. There was no mention of Iraq as a disaster, a fraud or even a blunder. He presumably still thinks the war should not have been fought, but Obama chose not to make this point, accentuating the positive instead.

In setting aside the 16-month exit timetable that he had promised while running for the White House, and on other issues, Obama unapologetically demonstrates that, while campaigners can be simplistic and rigid, responsible officials grapple with complexities and require flexibility. So we should expect that, if necessary at the time, he will extend his new 18-month timetable for ending the U.S. combat mission. He has built substantial flexibility into his new plan: First, he intends to keep a U.S. force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq beyond August 2010. And second, he says that U.S. forces will continue to conduct "targeted counter-terrorism missions" even after our "combat mission" ends.

This Iraq speech was cautious. It neither represents nor promises ultimate victory in Iraq. But it does flatly contradict those war critics who damned the U.S. effort as an irredeemable failure. It represents the defeat of the defeatists.

DANIELLE PLETKA

Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

If Washington is a zero-sum town, then conservatives should be pleased with President Obama's plan to leave Iraq. Liberal opponents of the war such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer expressed concern with Obama's plan to leave 35,000 to 50,000 noncombat troops in Iraq after August 2010, withdrawing all only by the end of 2011. But Reid's displeasure is not the measure of good policy or sound military strategy. And the real question that the plan elicits is: What's the strategy? Wars, after all, do not end; they are won or lost. Understanding that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good, as the president rightly suggested, it is still reasonable to question whether the war will be won by August 2010. And will the residual force tasked with counterterrorism, training and force protection have accomplished its mission by the end of 2011? There are substantial challenges ahead in Iraq, and pockets such as Kirkuk and Mosul remain flash points of conflict that cause genuine disquiet among military leaders on the ground. There will come a time when most U.S. forces can leave Iraq, certain that Iraq is "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant [and] provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists."

But isn't our aim to ensure that we meet that goal, and secure genuine long-term partnership, rather than hewing to an arbitrary timetable that puts politics first and leadership second?


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