It is good to know that President Obama is opposed to sending U.S. troops into Iraq, though hardly surprising. (I was shocked to hear a reporter ask the president after his remarks if he was reluctant to do so. How could he not be?)
As Chuck Todd noted today on MSNBC, and here, 59 percent of Americans believe that the war in Iraq was not worth it. Does anyone seriously believe that a well-crafted Obama sales pitch could convince a majority of Americans to change their minds? I don’t.
Among the many maddening aspects of this story—and there are many—I’m most frustrated by the claim that the United States should have left a residual force in Iraq after 2011. There are actually three problems with this claim. First, it is NOT a partisan issue. Bush attempted to negotiate a deal that would have left forces in Iraq, and failed. Obama tried, and failed. The claim that one or the other failed because he didn’t try hard enough is just foolish. A sufficient number of Iraqis didn’t want U.S. troops to stay there (albeit for different reasons) that the failure to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) can hardly be blamed on either Bush or Obama for a lack of effort.
So what these people are really saying is that we should have left U.S. troops in Iraq without a SOFA, in the face of Iraqi opposition. We are told that the troops left behind wouldn’t be engaged in combat, so they really wouldn’t have been in danger. That is what Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on MSNBC just after the president’s statement. I think this ignores that the U.S. presence was a source of violent resistance in the first place, so it is hard to see how U.S. troops wouldn’t have been subject to at least the risk of regular attacks.
Besides, SOFAs do not protect U.S. troops from security threats, but rather from the vagaries of foreign justice systems. So it is easy to see how a peaceful, non-threatening, U.S. military operation–e.g., a roadblock searching for bad guys–can turn south in a hurry. Maybe a husband and wife fail to stop at the roadblock, and they are shot. Maybe they are killed. Without a SOFA that extends standard legal protections to U.S. servicemen, the troops manning that roadblock would be subject to Iraqi justice, forced to stand accused of murder before Iraqi judges. Is that really what Senator McCain and others want? We don’t leave U.S. forces in foreign countries without a SOFA for a reason.
Lastly, the claim that a residual force would have convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern better/more inclusively, and that a residual force today might do the same (although McCain allowed today that Maliki might simply need to be replaced; by whom he did not say) ignores that a far larger force, including some of the largest concentrations of U.S. troops in 2008 and 2009, did NOT convince Maliki to cut deals with his political opponents and stab his political supporters in the back. So why would anyone think that a smaller force would have succeeded, or would succeed now?
The breakup of Iraq that many predicted before the war may now be happening. Maybe the country will be partitioned—an idea that previously was ridiculed. Maybe the Iraqi military will turn things around and crush the insurgency. I don’t know whether any of these things will happen. But I will go out on a limb and predict that the U.S. military won’t be sorting out these things. And for that, we should all be grateful.