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Obama's Iraq Problem

Obama speaks about Iraq during a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., today. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By President Obama's reckoning, we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place, but today -- even as he announced a timeline for the departure of American troops -- he more or less endorsed former president George W. Bush's possibly unattainable goals for the benighted country.

"This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant," Obama said today at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. "To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region."

Obama's decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq in 18 months, while leaving as many as 50,000 troops there in non-combat roles until the end of 2011, will strike some observers as too fast and others as too slow. It's certainly a bit slower than what he said he would do on the campaign trail.

But I have to wonder: What happens when we leave? And who gets the blame if things fall apart?

Some experts I respect (Peter Galbraith, for instance) maintain that, although violence has dramatically declined in Iraq, there is still no real stability there -- and that at some point in the future, quite possibly when we pull out, the ethnic tensions that exploded into civil war after Saddam Hussein's overthrow will almost certainly explode again.

That's no argument for staying longer. If things are going to explode either way, we might as well leave sooner than later.

But if Obama has really adopted Bush's goal of leaving behind a secure Iraq, then the failure, should it happen, would be his. And Bush's years-long strategy of kicking the can down the road will have worked.

In his speech today, Obama forthrightly described many of the challenges: "Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq’s future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has had difficulty delivering basic services. Not all of Iraq’s neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraq’s government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner – politically and economically – in the region, or with the international community."

He emphasized the "critical recognition that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political – not military....The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraq’s leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people. Iraq is a sovereign country with legitimate institutions; America cannot – and should not – take their place."

But then he repeated his intention to achieve that possibly impossible goal: "[A] strong political, diplomatic, and civilian effort on our part can advance progress and help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security."

With more on today's announcement, Anne E. Kornblut and William Branigin write for The Washington Post: "President Obama announced plans Friday to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and to pull out all remaining troops by the end of 2011, ending the war in Iraq and launching 'a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.'"

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times about how, so far, Obama is getting heartier support for his plan from Republicans than Democrats. Surprise.

AFP reports: "President Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal announcement Friday was likely to stoke a painful debate: With thousands of US dead, countless Iraqis killed, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, was the war worth it?"

And Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that Obama called Bush to brief him on the plan, as as courtesy.

I wonder if Bush said thank you.

UPDATE: Will Iraq now be Obama's failure? Weigh in in my White House Watchers group discussion.

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 27, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Iraq  
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This article is very poorly thought out. While everyone agrees that there is likely to be at least in the short term an increase in sectarian violence in Iraq when our troops leave, it is unclear what form this could take. Depending upon how things shake out, it could be:

1, Testing the resolve of a strong central government through terrorist activities.

2, Some open rebellion that is geographically isolated.


3, Full blown Civil War.

To believe that possibility 3 is inevitable is ridiculous. Our current goal is not to avert future sectarian violence, but to try and minimize the damage it can do by strengthening the Iraqi government.

I mean really Dan, did you not read about the election a few weeks ago, or see the central goverment put down the Shia militias withough much american help.

Frankly I think your ego is getting in the way with your ability to reason. Clearly your ego can't handle taking back some of the hundreds of pages you have written regarding Iraq.

In the end isn't not changing ones opinion in the face of evidence to the contrary what soured you on Bush. Don't be a slave to your world view, be pragmatic like Obama.

Posted by: DCDave11 | February 27, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

AFP poses the question again "Was the Iraq War worth it?" Where have these people been. That question was decided in late 2003 when it became quite clear that we would not have a cakewalk war.

The war has never been "worth it". From day one it was a waste of lives and money. US personnel (and Iraqis) died for no good reason. In fact, the world is less safe and the Iraqi people are poorer because of the war.

By all objective standards, it was not worth it.

Does any sane person think that knowing what we know now, that this war would have been authorized in 2002?

Pull the troops out as soon as possible. It is going to precipitate a blood bath either sooner or later. Just quit wasting my tax dollars.

Posted by: wj03412000 | February 27, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

@DCDave11: "Frankly I think your ego is getting in the way with your ability to reason."

Frankly I think you and the rest of the Iraq war cheerleaders have been grasping at every straw in sight for 6 straight years now in the hopes of one day vindicating your preposterous prewar ideas. You see an inability to assimilate new facts; we see these facts and hope for the best but we recognize that you're reading far too much into minor events.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | February 27, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Dan, you're right, Bush's "kick the can down the road" policy will succeed if Obama implements the plan he outlined. But really, what choice does he have? The war was always a fraud, a mountain of lies have been told, the crooked took their money and ran, but somebody has to clean up the mess and it is going to be us.

Posted by: gposner | February 27, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I said for at least 2 years that Bush had no desire to change the situation in Iraq. His strategy was to leave the mess for the next president, regardless of who it may be. It seems to have worked. This mess is President Obama's to fix or fail.

Posted by: CardFan | February 27, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

After effectively losing his Iraq war Bush's only strategy was to "kick the can down the road" in an attempt to mask his failure. His, and the Republican domestic political strategy was always to set up future administrations for blame much as Republicans blamed Truman for losing China in 1949 (as if China was Truman's to lose). Viewed in that light, Obama's slow walking the withdrawal makes perfect sense. He won't "lose" Iraq during his first term, and if all ends well he gets full credit for success. I support Obama.

Posted by: TexasJim | February 27, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I think the current plan is the best that can be hoped for. The alternatives are pull out even faster, which may not even be possible given the logistics, or keeping 140,000 troops there indefinitely.

Posted by: troyd2009 | February 27, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

The USA will NEVER leave Iraq. There's just too much money and oil left to steal. Oh, and lots more children to torture. Obama=Bush. Both liars.

Posted by: davidbn27 | February 27, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Published: August 21, 2008
BAGHDAD — The United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011 if conditions in Iraq remain relatively stable, according to Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating a security accord governing American forces there

Posted by: seawolfR | February 27, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Please... david...

Come back from la-la land.

What oil have we stolen from Iraq?? What money have we stolen from Iraq? What payment have we received from them for our operations there? Last I checked the federal deficit was pretty large in the Bush years... and was absent of any large Billion $$ payments for our security services.

Posted by: alutz08 | February 27, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Iraq will now join Afghanistan-Pakistan [Obama's Vietnam] as permanent mill stones around Obama's next. And our own.

So long, Barack. Too proud to resist a fool's duty. A one-term mediocrity is your destiny. And your history.

Too bad, so sad.

Thanks much. HLB

Posted by: HLBeckPE | February 27, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"neck" for "next" - damn cats.


Posted by: HLBeckPE | February 27, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Iraq is and always will be unstable. It only takes a few fanatics to blow themselves up to cause chaos. There will be chaos no matter when we leave. Check the history of the region!

Posted by: Cbrick1 | February 27, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Dan.

I found this three year plan with little movement in the near future toward the door deeply disappointing. We can play lots of word games here but it's stay the course with a time frame that is subject to conditions on the ground. It doesn't matter if it is 2009, 2010, 2011, 3011, pulling out will always be difficult and the generals charged with keeping the peace and guarding the oil fields will always lobby for as many troops and resources as the citizens of this country will give them. With the problems we have here at home, I don't see how we can keep doing this financially. Propping up Iraq over there has caused our collapse back home. This is not change. It's same old, same old.

Posted by: SarahBB | February 27, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Cbrick1 is right.

The sooner we leave, the better.

This was never America's war.

Posted by: WillSeattle | February 27, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

in all fairness to lil george, "Thank you" would not have been appropriate response to obama calling him up to say: "Nah-nah-nah-nah. Nah-nah-nah-nah. Hey, He-ey. Good-bye!"

now bring on those bushie admin criminal prosecutions so we have something to watch on TV while waiting for our kids to get home from iraq -- nothing like long series of OJ style trials of senior bush admin officials (hopefully with more sensible verdicts this time) to get our minds off all these economic troubles.

Posted by: ithejury | February 27, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Yeh, I can relate to Obama's "problem". I had just gotten out of Viet Nam when Nixon was elected after Johnson refused to run.

Posted by: reginacoeli | February 27, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

The difference back then in Viet Nam vs today with Iraq was that war was a failure after costing 58,000 American soldier lives, whereas this conflict is proving to dispose of a ruthless dictator and setting up a democracy in the heart of the Arab world at the unfortunate cost of about 4000 American soldier lives.

I rather have Obama's "problem" rather than Nixon's.

Posted by: reginacoeli | February 27, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

No American will be free until every Iraqi has a purple finger.

Posted by: motorfriend | February 27, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

But if Obama has really adopted Bush's goal of leaving behind a secure Iraq, then the failure, should it happen, would be his. And Bush's years-long strategy of kicking the can down the road will have worked.


At a certain point, it has to go beyond trying to game someone else's insipid strategy.

Obama chose to be President, a President must lead, a President must risk failure, a true president of the US must make the decisions that will move nations -- this, as opposed to moving Karl Rove, say. If the politicians play to Karl Rove, the nation becomes Karl Rove, and no thanks.

Obama needs to do the right thing for Iraq and for the American people.

And he should also do what he thinks is truly right, despite what the consultants and the cronies tell him.

How do we address the issue of stabilty in Iraq, do we watch to see how the world and any potentioal threats pan out over the next 18 months?

Yes, we do, and we must do our best to leave Iraq a better place while also rebuilding a shattered American economy.

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | February 27, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

If I were standing in the audience of Marines, I would not have been encouraged by an announced policy of almost two more years of an active combat role in Iraq. How many tours does that amount to for the servicemen and women in attendance? Probably two. How many of them will return in flag-draped coffins, or with missing limbs, or with the "signature" wounds of traumatic brain injury and PTSD? How many will commit suicide rather than submit to one or two more redeployments?

This is a terribly tough political and military knot for anyone to deal with, and perhaps Mr. Obama is right to try to untangle the puzzle rather than simply cut it. But two more years of active combat operations is hard to swallow.

From the positive side, I didn't hear Mr. Obama equivocate about conditions that could extend the stay of combat forces, or delay the ultimate total pullout in 2011. He basically gave the Iraqis our timeline, leaving them the choice to destroy each other or reconcile.

Also, unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama expressly recognized the plight of Iraqi refugees, and acknowledged Syria's role in accommodating several million of them, without rattling the sabres towards Syria. Nor did he blame Iran for our plight in Iraq.

Finally, Mr. Obama's clear indication that the U.S. has no intention of turning Iraq into a base from which to project military force towards Russia, Central Asia, Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East, provides hope that diplomacy will succeed in guaranteeing that Iran doesn't build an atomic weapon, and that Iran and the USA find a method of coexistence that is less contentious than that of the past 30 years.

When all is said and done, the sticking point in Iraq, I believe is not going to be Sunni vs. Shia, or Basra, or Baghdad, or even Anbar, but rather Mosul and Kirkuk, and the status of Iraqi Kurdistan. In that regard, there are four nations--two presently friends (Iraq and Turkey) and two presently adversaries (Syria and Iran) that have a stake in preventing the creation of an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East. That is the issue, I believe, that could lead to a regional war, which would nullify Mr. Obama's efforts, and, in terms of lives and treasure, make all of the sacrifice up to now in Iraq seem insignificant.

Posted by: bfieldk | February 27, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

My hope is that Obama's "Statecraft" will be as transparent as his Budget Watch. This War Machine is protecting a lot of special interest. Liberation at what cost?

Our president is pushing American down a road with no end. Why citizens tolerate this is amazing to me. As long as there is a mercenary force to perpetuate this insanity the citizens cannot stop it.

Wake up people. Our "agent for change" is jusifying continuation of a war that was conceived in deception and lies.

Posted by: CitizenCulleton | February 27, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse


It's officially Obama's war now.
He'd better make friends with
Iran and Syria very quickly.

This means the U.S. will have to
equal Iran's success which
over the past 30 years have trumped
every White House occupant.

And that makes Israel a lot
less important if he is to

Posted by: printthis | February 27, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

Well, greatpotato, it's like this in Iraq and it has been for some time at a tune of ten billion a month: If things get better, we can't leave because they might get worse. If they get worse, we can't leave because, well, they might get worse. Here's a newsflash, our economy is not going to get better as long as we are propping up Iraq. We'll be bankrupt before anyone in this military industrial complex declares Iraq stable or its armed forces "trained."

Posted by: SarahBB | February 27, 2009 11:11 PM | Report abuse

How the war began is completely immaterial. Personally I thought the risk outweighed the gains and that the UN inspectors should have been allowed to do their jobs. The threat of force was enough to force Saddam Hussein to allow full access. If thats what the whole thing was about.

But, Obama, and America are stuck with Iraq. Since we are stuck with it we might as well try and turn lemons into lemonade.

I guess what I don't get is how the author can ignore the enormous progress that has happened in Iraq over the past year. US casualties are down. The Sunni's participated in an election monitored by the UN for fairness. Secular parties gained seats. Maliki's government passed a pivotal test last summer/spring when they stood up to the Shia Mulah's. Why wouldn't these things be part of a discussion of our strategy. The last year has been full of progress, why assume that it is illusory? I mean we did throw their country into disarray right, don't we have a responsibility to help make things work for them.

Two years ago yes it looked like Iraq was heading for absolute disaster, but to ignore the progress that has been made is just to ignore the facts and pretend that 2007 is 2009.

In terms of the economy, well Iraq was completely insignificant. You can't say that Iraq bankrupted America when we are getting ready to have more deficit spending than at anytime since 1949. If the government spending more money than it has is the source of the downturn then we are all in trouble because in fact Obama's economic policy is at its core the same as Bush's, i.e. spend more and don't raise taxes enough to pay for what you are spending. Both groups think that govt. spending is good for the economy.

Iraq didn't have anything to do with our economic problems. Individual people following the governments example did. Iraq didn't force people to take out loans they couldn't afford or run up their credit card bills. We did that all on our own.

Posted by: DCDave11 | February 28, 2009 4:09 AM | Report abuse

Jack was leading a bunch of hikers in the woods and spied a hornet's nest a distance away from the path. Disliking hornets (ever since he watched his father get chased into a lake by a swarm) he knocked it to the ground. It rolled right into the hikers' path and a swarm of angry hornets started buzzing around, stinging the hikers as the hikers swatted at them, killing some of the bees but losing some of the hikers to the stings.

Fred came along, saw what was happening, told the group to follow him and he led them around the angry swarm, putting up warning signs for other hikers to avoid the area. The swarm, predictively, found another tree and started building a new nest, right on the hiking trail.

Two weeks later, a group of hikers were walking in the woods and got attacked by the swarm of hornets.

Obviously, it's Fred's fault they got stung, because he stopped the first group of hikers from swatting the hornets.

Posted by: capemh | February 28, 2009 5:37 AM | Report abuse

Johnson and Nixon are both considered to have failed in Vietnam, but it is Johnson who gets the blame for involvement. Outside the lunatic fringe, Nixon is usually blamed for prolonging and extending the conflict, rather than for ultimately pulling out and "losing" it.

Posted by: skeptonomist | February 28, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Just because you believe your goal should be to rescue a drowning man in the middle of the ocean, does not mean that the blame for his prediciment should not be placed on the moron who pushed him overboard.

Bush is our moron and the blame for this mess is properly laid at his feet,

Posted by: lgaide | March 2, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

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