Obama Traded Stability in Iraq for Votes
The president, in his own words, wanted to fulfill a campaign promise
January 23, 2012
Here's what success in Iraq looks like: democratic elections, sectarian comity, independence in foreign policy, al Qaeda stymied, cooperating with the United States, and self-sufficiency. Iraq didn't look completely like that in early 2011, but it was headed in the right direction.
Here's what Iraq looks like now: en route to Shia autocracy, sectarian fighting, substantial and rising Iranian influence, al Qaeda resurgent, and an almost certain economic downturn rooted in instability.
What happened in the interim? Barack Obama decided to "end the war, responsibly," and, against the advice of his own appointed commanders, withdraw all American troops from Iraq. Was there a military imperative to bring the troops home? Not according to the military; nor did the commander in chief intend to deploy those troops to Afghanistan. Rather, the president, in his own words, wanted to fulfill a campaign promise as he geared up for the real must-win battle: election 2012.
Opponents of the war rationalize the president's decision in several ways: 1) We never should have invaded Iraq. This is an honest position. It is, however, irrelevant, as we did invade Iraq, and once elected, Barack Obama chose to keep troops there. 2) Iraq didn't want us, refused to grant troops immunity, wouldn't make a parliamentary decision to invite us to stay. This is a dishonest argument, as the administration made no serious effort to negotiate keeping remaining troops in Iraq. 3) We can't afford it. This is a lie (U.S. GDP is more than $15 trillion), but worthy of deconstruction.
The FY 2011 cost of the Iraq war (military operations alone) was close to $50 billion. In FY 2012, the number allocated to the Department of Defense for Iraq will be substantially lower, but the incremental rise in costs borne by the State Department (almost $4 billion for the embassy alone), foreign military financing, training, military cooperation, and the like will take costs back up again.
Consider the costs of operations that may have been unnecessary had the United States retained military access to Iraq: In recent months, the United States has deployed three carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf, largely in response to concerns from Arab allies that the region has been abandoned to Iran. The operational cost of a carrier battle group tops $1 billion per year. Iranian threats, escalated after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have also increased the price of oil, which will directly affect the U.S. economy.
Then there are the hard-to-quantify costs—regional fears of a declining America, a growing Arab arms race, the increased likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran as confidence in the U.S. security umbrella fades. And the spiraling disaster in Iraq, giving the lie to any notion that the president was preoccupied with a "responsible" end to the war. Regional leaders underscore the reverberating costs of the U.S. flight from the Middle East, and their fears about Iraqi instability and Iranian opportunism.
Finally, human cost. In 2011, there were 54 military fatalities in Iraq, a toll far lower than previous years and, had we remained, likely to decline. Keeping troops in Iraq was never about more combat operations; it was always about stability.
In 2011, the president's options were clear: stay in Iraq with 10,000 troops and maintain the peace at reasonable cost, or get out and trust to the good will of Iran, agitators like Moqtada al-Sadr, and al Qaeda. We know what he chose; we know why. The coming year will reveal the price.