Ricks Asserts That Obama Will Ignore SOFA

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

ricks.jpgIn an interview with NPR yesterday morning to promote his new book, author Tom Ricks again made the claim that the United States, in violation of the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, will keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq until at least 2015. This claim is in direct contravention of President Obama’s stated plan to adhere to the SOFA and withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. But Ricks states he doesn’t “know anyone in Baghdad who thinks that’s going to happen” and “Iraq will change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.”

So who is Ricks talking to in Baghdad who is so confident the United States will act in bad faith and abrogate an intergovernmental agreement approved by the Iraqi parliament? It certainly isn’t Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which negotiated hard to extract a 2011 end date in the “withdrawal agreement.” This inattention to Iraqi opinions was first noticed by Marc Lynch in his review of Ricks’ latest book. Ricks’ argument is almost entirely based upon the views of his sources, which are in the U.S. military establishment in Iraq. It’s not a coincidence that Ricks’ view mirrors the one Gen Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, gives him in the book.

This narrow focus on U.S. military actions ignores the increasing imperative to assert Iraqi prerogatives that Iraqi political actors face. Maliki, while still heading a Shiite Islamist party, achieved a significant victory in the recent provincial elections due in large part to his increasingly nationalist rhetoric. The United States cannot base its future Iraq strategy on the assumption of a compliant Iraqi government. Sooner or later, that government – if it remains representative in some fashion – will reflect the nationalist impulses of the Iraqi population and be less susceptible to U.S. blandishments. In the most recent polling data, 73 percent of Iraqis opposed the presence of U.S. forces while only one percent wanted U.S. forces to “never leave.” This new Iraqi independence isn’t a bad thing, unless one thinks that a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq should be a strategic priority for the United States.

Excessively focusing on the tactical elements of Iraq policy — like training Iraqi troops – diverts attention from the war’s continuing negative impact on U.S. regional interests. By continuing to suck up American resources, tactical tinkering in Iraq threatens the allied effort in Afghanistan as it continues to teeter precariously. Moreover, Ricks’ view – if it indeed reflects the thinking of Gen. Odierno’s command in Baghdad – represents an attempt by the military establishment in Iraq to undermine the stated policy of its commander-in-chief.

As his statement at Camp Lejeune indicated, President Obama intends to slowly shift U.S. Iraq policy from a tactical focus on training and troop levels to a broader strategic approach involving Iraqi and regional politics. Obama will need to face off future pressure from commanders on the ground in Iraq to halt or slow further troop withdrawals in the future, and this task won’t be any easier with stenographers in Washington repeating the ultra-cautious line from U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad.