The New York Times has an article about some pushback President Obama is getting from some military figures, notably General Odierno in Iraq, regarding his plan for a relatively rapid redeployment of forces out of the theater. Basically, Odierno thinks we need to go slower. But while I can sympathize with General Odierno’s desire for maximum flexibility and the largest quantity of resources possible, the president needs to consider the wider strategic perspective and the large global and regional costs of maintaining an indefinite military presence.
But even with regard to Iraq here, Odierno seems to me to be thinking too much in narrow operational terms. The “go slow” idea is that we should stay in Iraq in force through the elections, to maximize security and give us flexibility in terms of figuring out what to do down the road. The trouble with this perspective is that it fails to recognize that U.S. military policy is one of the important inputs into the Iraqi political process. As Marc Lynch says, going slow will poison the wells for the summer referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement, make the United States look untrustworthy, enhance the hostility of the Iraqi public to American forces, and destabilize the political situation. Ultimately, we’ll just wind up being forced out anyway. But it’ll have to be done more chaotically, and without the goodwill and spirit of mutualism that the SOFA embodies. A relatively rapid move toward withdrawal will complicate the operational situation, but it will also serve as a “downpayment” on further withdrawal down the road and establish American seriousness about getting to the point where Iraq is a real sovereign country without a foreign occupying army.
In a broader context, I think it’s just difficult to overstate the importance of ending the war and occupation in Iraq to advancing America’s broader international agenda. There were a lot of things wrong with the Bush administration’s policy, but in concrete terms the world is looking for a new approach to detention and torture, a new approach to Israel and Palestine, and a new approach to Iraq. Obama has acted decisively on the first item, has shown a lot of promise on the second, and needs to follow through on the third. Diplomacy with Iran, a renewed focus on the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation, a rapprochement with Europe, a partnership with China and our allies in Asia on the global economic situation, etc. all require us to get out of an Iraq-focused foreign policy. And the complexities of Iraq are such that the best way to do that is to get out of Iraq.