Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s call for a timetable on American troop withdrawals has touched off a dramatic change in the debate over the future U.S. engagement in Iraq – essentially, it marks a falling away of the fig-leaf rationales for the five-plus years of occupation.
As these fig leaves drop to the ground, they are exposing raw geo-strategic objectives that were present in the original calculations of Republican foreign policy experts going back to the early 1990s, a desire for a firm U.S. foothold in the Middle East to protect the West's access to oil and to defend the state of Israel from, then, primarily its Arab enemies.
Those objectives were outlined in the Paul Wolfowitz-inspired Defense Strategy paper prepared in 1992 that argued in favor of an American version of the imperial British “East of Suez” concept of projecting power into this strategic region.
Going “East of Suez” also made sense to Donald Rumsfeld and other political leaders who observed that once America’s Cold War role as the protector of Western Europe had ended, the U.S. needed a new mission in a new region to sustain its superpower status.
Furthermore, the United States had a refurbished and well-funded military machine, with a volunteer Army, which had come off a great victory in the Gulf War and a successful air war against Serbia in the 1990s.
““What good is it having the most powerful military in the world if you don’t use it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly asked Gen. Colin Powell during the Bosnian crisis.
All these ambitions, calculations and objectives relating specifically to the Middle East suddenly were achievable after the 9/11 attacks, but the Bush administration hid them behind other rationales – such as the goal of spreading democracy, the need to fight global terrorism or Islamo-facism, and the search for weapons of mass destruction.
Ironically, it required the decline in violence that followed the U.S. troop “surge,” coupled with bribes to Sunni tribes and the ethnic cleansing of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods, to create enough stability inside Iraq for the Maliki government to cross the political Rubicon and ask Washington to agree to a troop withdrawal timetable.
Maliki put this request on the table on July 7 when he observed that the long-term security accord that had been under discussion with Washington for months must include "a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a timetable for their withdrawal."
The White House, the Pentagon and John McCain’s presidential campaign were caught off guard and fumbled their responses – in part because Maliki’s call for a timetable stripped away some of the more noble-sounding reasons for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, especially the defense of Iraqi sovereignty and the protection of its fledgling democracy.
Simultaneously, Maliki’s call for a withdrawal timetable played into the hands of Barack Obama because he long has advocated reducing the U.S. military presence to a residual force within 16 months of taking office.
Suddenly, Maliki was urging something similar, reflecting the nationalistic sentiments of many Iraqis who resent the presence of foreign troops on their land. Maliki’s position also was welcomed by many Americans tired of this open-ended, bloody war.
If Bush's “democracy” rationale meant anything, it presumably would include respecting the will of the Iraqi people and their elected leaders. How could Bush, McCain and other war supporters continue to tout that uplifting cause if they brushed aside what the Iraqis want?
Yet, as the “democracy” fig leaf was falling away, oil was soaring to $140 a barrel and Iran was showing defiance against international pressure to stop its nuclear enrichment program. Iran also conducted test launches of medium-range missiles that could reach Tel Aviv.
So, the Realpolitik rationales of extracting more Iraqi oil and countering Iran’s regional ambitions were growing more acute even as the notion of respecting the will of the Iraqi people – as well as the American public – was growing more tenuous.
The Media Reframes the Mission
Actually, this policy dilemma began to surface on June 15 when the Washington Post ran an editorial, entitled “A Partnership with Iraq,” attacking congressional Democrats who had criticized the Bush administration's effort to negotiate, in a stealth-like fashion, a long-term security accord with Iraq.
The newspaper, whose editorial board has long supported the Iraq War, argued that the status-of-forces agreement had to include a permanent U.S. presence in the region "to counter Iran's attempt to dominate the Middle East." Such an ambitious goal clearly would require more than a small residual U.S. force in the region.
There seems to have been no significant reaction to this amazing editorial until July 8 when two congressional Democrats (House members William Delahunt and Rosa DeLauro) responded in a taking-exception column published in the Post.
Although unaware of Maliki's timetable request the previous day, the two Democrats wrote that in June a visiting delegation of Iraqi parliamentarians testified before Congress that a clear timetable was needed to avert a resurgence of sectarian conflicts and more attacks on U.S. forces.
Still, it took awhile for Maliki’s "withdrawal timetable" bombshell to register in Washington. On July 14, Republican strategist/consultant Gary Jarmin pointed out in an astute op-ed in the Washington Times that Maliki's request for a timetable had undercut McCain.
Noting that absent a withdrawal plan, the value of the surge success is a case of diminishing returns, Jarmin concluded that voters in November "will not be inclined to reward McCain for a surge strategy that finally after numerous and costly occupation mistakes is remedying a debacle they concluded was a gigantic error from Day One."
Jarmin urged McCain to bend to Maliki’s demands and accept a timetable to avoid being undercut politically as the election approaches.
Regarding the threat that Maliki’s timetable demand represented to Republican hopes to hold the White House, McCain may have been lucky that the public was focused on the worsening U.S. financial crisis, not Iraq.
However, in the longer term, McCain is trapped in a tightening contradiction.
On one side, there’s the Bush administration’s rhetoric about respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and valuing democracy. On the other, there is the desire of McCain’s neo-conservative advisors to separate the success of the “surge” from the prospect of troop withdrawals precisely to serve those long-obscured but now very real geo-strategic interests – oil and regional power.
And this dilemma is now at the heart of the policy conflict between Obama and McCain as noted by Jackson Diehl in a Washington Post op-ed piece also on July 14. Diehl explicitly pointed to the reasons why McCain and the neo-cons do not want to give in to Maliki on a timetable: their desire to contain Iran and protect the oil fields for the West's interests.
Diehl also pointed out the difficulties facing Obama as he tries to stick to his 16-month timetable for troop withdrawals. Diehl referred to three Obama policy advisors who believe that Obama would find it hard logistically to withdraw more than five brigades in the first 12 months.
These advisors think Obama has to address more specifically what is the long-term U.S. relationship with Iraq, Diehl wrote.
Only 24 hours later, Obama, who had been struggling to defend what he meant about "refining" his position on troop withdrawals in Iraq, pounced on Maliki's request for a timetable and turned it to his advantage.
In a New York Times op-ed, Obama reaffirmed that he sees no reason for a long-term military commitment to Iraq, except for some anti-terrorist mop-up operations with a small residual force. He categorically rejected the idea of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.
Avoiding any direct comment on how the Iran-Israeli confrontation may relate to the level of U.S. military presence in Iraq, Obama talked instead about shifting more troops to Afghanistan.
The Falling Fig Leaf
The bottom line is that as the oil crisis intensifies and tensions remain with Iran, the fig leaf over U.S. policy – as justified by the Bush White House – will continue to float toward the ground.
For his part, McCain wants us to believe that the conflict is really about fighting Islamo-fascism, and in some ways so does Obama with his emphasis on defeating Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and going after al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
But that posture, especially as it relates to Iraq, is going to become increasingly difficult to sustain with the American public.
In a July 15 op-ed in the Washington Times, neoconservative columnist Michael Barone danced around the problem by likening Bush’s Iraq “surge” to Harry Truman's bold decision at the start of the Cold War to counter Soviet pressure by launching the Berlin airlift.
However, what was most revealing about Barone’s article may have been the title: "We Are Not Leaving." He concluded with a plea for American voters to: “Stand firm. Put the right man in charge.” He presumably meant McCain.
A companion cartoon showed Maliki as a tiny puppet-like figure demanding a timetable for U.S. troop departures while tucked inside the coat pocket of a large George W. Bush.
Despite this mocking of Maliki and his demand for a withdrawal timetable, the rough correlation between the positions of the Iraqi leadership and Obama creates a potential crisis for a signature issue of McCain’s campaign – seeing the Iraq War through to “victory.”
For Obama, however, there is the risk that some voters might privately think it’s not such a bad idea to hold onto Iraq if that ensures Iraq’s oil riches reaching the world market. And other voters, who fear for Israel’s future, might quietly support the idea of American might facing down Iran.
We suspect that neither political camp wants a full and frank exchange over this policy conflict in a presidential debate or on the campaign trail.
But can such an exchange be avoided if gasoline remains well over $4 a gallon or if Iran continues making advances in its nuclear program?
Washington Post: Obama the Pussy Cat
The difficulty for Obama came to a head with a Washington Post lead editorial on July 16 that curtly dismissed his Iraq policy as an inflexible demand for an "Iron Timetable."
The editorial depicted Obama as a lightweight who has put withdrawal of U.S. troops ahead of the geopolitical value of maintaining Iraq as a base for American power projection in the region. Referring to Obama's pro-withdrawal stance, the Post editors concluded:
"That's an irrational and ahistorical way to view a country at the strategic center of the Middle East, with some of the world's largest oil reserves. Whether or not the war was a mistake, Iraq's future is a vital U.S. security interest. If he is elected president, Mr. Obama sooner or later will have to tailor his Iraq strategy to that reality."
However, Obama’s Iraq position won near-unqualified support from the New York Times in an editorial on July 17, entitled "Talking Sense on Iraq," which slammed McCain for his undefined notion of victory and opposition to timetables and troop withdrawals.
The dilemma for Obama and his top advisors, such as Tony Lake and Susan Rice, is that they can hardly tell the voters that defending the oil fields and containing Iran are not important. At the same time, the McCain camp can hardly trumpet these same objectives as why the U.S. needs to stay a long, long time in Iraq.
As for the American voters, would high gasoline prices really get a significant number of them to buy into that Realpolitik rationale for staying in Iraq, what war critics have denounced as the trading of “blood for oil”? Would many other voters want to pay the high price in blood and tax dollars to serve as a regional counterweight to Iran?
This election could represent a watershed for the American Republic, what might be called a pivotal "Imperial Moment," when Americans will face a fateful choice about whether staying “East of Suez” is the mission they want for their nation’s future.
Peter W. Dickson is a former CIA political-military analyst. (Copyrighted, 2008, by Peter W. Dickson)
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