With a Democratic president in office, a group of Washington neoconservative pundits, with little policy recourse other than whipping up public opinion, get together under the aegis of Bill Kristol and write open letters to the administration pushing hawkish policies on Iraq. That’s what happened in the 1990s when Kristol founded the Project For The New American Century (PNAC), a so-called “letterhead organization” that pushed for the U.S. to remove Saddam Hussein from power by force. Neoconservatives, of course, then dotted the halls of power when George W. Bush took the presidency. Within three years, the U.S. military moved into Iraq.
Now, with another Democrat — President Obama — in the oval office, Kristol et al are undertaking a similar venture. Only this time, it’s not about invading Iraq, but about staying there for an indefinite period. That’s what happened when Kristol’s new “letterhead organization” — the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) — released a letter yesterday about the Obama administration’s reported plan to drop troop levels in Iraq to a mere several thousand.
After lauding U.S. efforts in Iraq so far, the FPI letter, signed by 40 mostly-neoconservative analysts, said:
We are thus gravely concerned about recent news reports suggesting that the White House is considering leaving only a residual force of 4,000 or fewer U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of this year. This number is significantly smaller than what U.S. military commanders on the ground have reportedly recommended and would limit our ability to ensure that Iraq remains stable and free from significant foreign influence in the years to come.
From the get-go, the letter seems premature. At Inter Press Service, Jim Lobe points out that the letter presumes two significant factors that have yet to come about:
The letter was released despite the fact that the administration has not publicly announced how many troops it would like to leave behind in Iraq, presuming that the Nouri al-Maliki government, which itself is reportedly deeply divided on the issue, agrees to permit an extension.
Like with the invasion itself, what Iraqis think — other than small cohort of self-serving exiles close to the Bush administration who fed it faulty intelligence to justify the U.S. attack — is irrelevant. The current Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the U.S. — which FPI curiously acknowledges as a “so-called ‘security agreement’” in its website intro — says that all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of the year unless Iraqis agree to an extension. When Bush signed the SOFA in 2008, critics complained that it would tie the next president’s hands. FPI holds up the new “democratic Iraq,” but doesn’t seem to care what it thinks.
But there are other problems with the FPI letter. Surely the “foreign influence” FPI decries at the top of the letter is not the United States and, sure enough, further down it gets into the meat and potatoes of the argument:
In recent months, Iran has increased its attempts to expand its influence in Iraq, including through the killing of American forces and support to Iraqi political parties. Maintaining a robust American presence in-country would blunt these efforts, and help ensure Iraq remains oriented away from Iran and a long-term ally of the United States.
But Leif Babin, a decorated former Navy SEAL officer who did three tours in Iraq and now thinks the U.S. should pull all its troops out, acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week what many Iraq observers already know: Iran, a fellow Shia Mulsim country that shares a long border with Iraq, has been an influence on Iraq’s government since the now-ruling parties were in exile in Iran before Hussein’s fall:
The fact is that the U.S. footprint in Iraq emboldens Iran. [...]
Many fear that Iran will gain significant influence in Iraq after a complete U.S. withdrawal. But Iran already has significant influence there. From 1980 to 2003, Iraq’s ruling Dawa Party was based partly in Iran (and partly in Syria), and it maintains strong ties with the Iranian regime.
Hope of limiting Iranian influence in Iraq grew following the narrow victory of Ayad Allawi’s secular party in the Iraqi national elections of March 2010. Yet the U.S. presence in Iraq remains a catalyst empowering Iranian influence through Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who drums up popular support based on opposition to the U.S. “occupation.” Thus the U.S. presence subtracts credibility from the government of Iraq and empowers anti-American, pro-Iranian forces.
FPI’s letter also relies on what has become a classic conservative trope: That Obama should blindly follow the advice of “U.S. military commanders on the ground.” Leaving aside that this elides the chain-of-command that ensures civilian control of the military — something the generals themselves seem keenly aware of — in the case of Iraq it’s also a false talking point. This week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said he was “pleased” with the current drawdown schedule that has all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of this year. And the former top U.S. commander in Iraq and now Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno said earlier this month that the U.S. has “to be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq.”
The letter was signed by, among others, Kristol, Gary Bauer, John Podhoretz, Fred and Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Cliff May, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Paul Woflowitz and Randy Scheunemann. Some of the signatories served in key positions during the Bush administration and many were PNAC letter signatories. The lessons of the push for war with Iraq, it seems, are completely lost on those who effectuated it.