Obama’s bold gamble on Iraq

By L Paul Bremer III
October 23, 2011

By L Paul Bremer, III
The opinions expressed are his own.

In announcing that all American troops will be out of Iraq by year’s end, President Obama has placed a big bet on the future of Iraq and on America’s position in a restive Middle East. While the initial public response to his decision, in America and in Iraq, may be positive, this will not shield him from the consequences if his bet goes sour.

The single most salient lesson in countries emerging from tyranny is the importance of providing security for the population.  This is not just one of many tasks that must be addressed: security is the essential prerequisite to progress in the other two foreseeable challenges—in Iraq, Egypt and now Libya: beginning a process of political reform and starting economic reconstruction.

The American government learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq.  For several years after Saddam was thrown out, we lacked the comprehensive counter insurgency strategy and sufficient forces needed to provide security to the Iraqi people.  Predictably, security deteriorated as an unholy alliance of Sunni and Shia terrorists, the first backed by al Qaeda, the other by Iran, took advantage the situation.  The deficiencies in strategy and troops while Iraq’s own national security forces were still in training produced a bloody and chaotic year in 2006.

There were two game-changers in Iraq.

1. President Bush’s courageous decision to change strategy and to surge forces.  Contrary to widespread skepticism in the American political class, these decisions gradually brought the security under much better control.

2. The almost unimaginable stoicism of the Iraqi people. In many individual months in 2006 and early 2007, Iraqi casualties from terrorism were greater, as a percent of the country’s population, than the casualties America experienced on 9/11.  Fortunately by the summer of 2011, violence had fallen against both Americans and Iraqis.

Despite this progress, every Iraqi—Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd, man or woman– I have spoken to over the past year has insisted on the importance of keeping American forces in Iraq even after the expiration of the current Status of Forces Agreement.  Despite a ramped up program of military training, Iraqi military leaders have privately and publicly asserted that Iraq’s security forces are not yet prepared to protect the country.  American military commanders share this assessment, which is one of several reasons a year ago the commanders on the ground recommended seeking Iraqi agreement to keep some 20,000 American troops there after 2011.

Without access to all the diplomatic exchanges between our countries, it is difficult to judge whether a better outcome was possible. Certainly Iraqi national feeling against granting American forces immunities was strong.  Clearly no President could agree to station them there without those immunities.  But it is the essence of good statecraft to resolve conflicting interests.  And it is clear from his words and body language that President Obama’s heart was not in winning the war in Iraq.  Indeed when he announced the withdrawal he merely noted that “America’s war in Iraq is over.” That is cold comfort to the millions of Iraqis who are left to fend for themselves in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

The Administration’s ill-disguised desire to get out of Iraq, mirrored by its decision to wage the war in Afghanistan on a political timetable, placed Iraqi politicians who wanted a residual American presence in an impossible situation.  How could they stick their necks out to push for American troops when the administration gave them no cover?

In his announcement the President noted that American troops have been in Iraq nine years.  But no war can be waged or won on a timetable. NATO forces are still in the Balkans after almost 20 years.  American forces have been in Europe and Asia for more than a half-century. During my service in Europe I saw firsthand how those troops added to American security by deterring conflict in two vital areas of the world.

Perhaps quiet negotiations can still find a way to reverse this policy. American troops in Iraq would serve our joint interests in four ways:

First, by finishing the job of training Iraqi forces to defeat domestic enemies and deter foreign ones. Effective training requires professional American troops and Iraqis working side by side until the Iraqis are capable of handling the job themselves.

Second, by fighting al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed terrorists. Both are still active in Iraq.  Our retreat will leave them a tempting vacuum.

Third, by continuing to provide an unspoken “buffer” along the Green Line that separates Iraqi Kurdish and Arab forces in the north;

Most importantly, a continuing American military presence would make it clear that America has enduring interests in the volatile Middle East and does not intend to let al Qaeda or Iraq’s neighbors, especially the terrorist states of Iran and Syria, benefit from any weakness of ours.

39 comments

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Obama’s bet is not only reasonable, it is the only way out of the mess Brenner’s team got us into. The naivety displayed by Bush, Brenner etc shall be credited for any bad outcome from any Obama’s bet, if it is considered a bet in the face of our current economic woes. The

Posted by 0okm9ijn | Report as abusive

Iraqi people must be saying to one another “let the dogs bark, Sancho it is a signal that we are ADVANCING”.. like don QUIJOTE said to PANCHO!

Boldie

Posted by boldie | Report as abusive

Fade away Mr. Bremer.

You dismantled Iraq in a such a hurry that the US had trouble managing the country after “the mission was accomplished”. We would not have lost as many soldiers as young as 19.

Serious recommendation to you. Go into retirement.

Posted by Agyat | Report as abusive

We have troops still in Japan, Germany and South Korea – decades after the end of conflicts. In fact, the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. Yet our president could not figure out a way to keep 3000 troops in Iraq to as a buffer to collapse of that country? Our truly biggest foe is the Republic of Iran that forces us to worry about Syria and the terrorists it trains and harbors in Syria and Lebanon.

Yet most of those responding seem to want a failure of the government of Iraq. It appears that their hatred for Bush and what he stood for politically within our country outweighs a common sense investment in a small number of troops in one country. Bitterness, hatred, and the blindness those emotions engender appear to rule the day.

Posted by charliethompto | Report as abusive

We have troops still in Japan, Germany and South Korea – decades after the end of conflicts. In fact, the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. Yet our president could not figure out a way to keep 3000 troops in Iraq to as a buffer to collapse of that country? Our truly biggest foe is the Republic of Iran that forces us to worry about Syria and the terrorists it trains and harbors in Syria and Lebanon.

Yet most of those responding seem to want a failure of the government of Iraq. It appears that their hatred for Bush and what he stood for politically within our country outweighs a common sense investment in a small number of troops in one country. Bitterness, hatred, and the blindness those emotions engender appear to rule the day.

Posted by charliethompto | Report as abusive

Obama decision to get out of Iraq is no gamble. You can’t gamble on something you don’t own and has lost control. You can’t gamble on your own security when the threat is false.

The gamble is G W Bush decision to launch a full-scale military invasion, unprovoked, on a country half a world away based on nothing more than his fantasy of destiny and grandeur. This is one of history most monumental blunder, and he gambled America’s blood and treasure away for nothing.

Mr Bremer may salvage a tiny bit of credibility left if he admit grand failure of the Bush administration, including himself as an inconsequential player in the whole sorry episode.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

Obama decision to get out of Iraq is no gamble. You can’t gamble on something you don’t own and has no control. You can’t gamble on your own security when the threat is false. After you invested a trillion dollar into a black hole, and now wants to jump out, you are not gambling or putting anything at risk.

The gamble is G W Bush and his gang decision to launch a full-scale military invasion, unprovoked, on a country half a world away that had nothing to do with 9/11, based on nothing more than Bush’s fantasy of destiny and grandeur. This is one of history most monumental blunder, and he gambled America blood and treasure away for nothing. One has to go back to the Spanish Armada invasion of England to find a parallel. The Spanish king lost an entire invasion fleet trying to take over England and convert that country back to Christianity. It was God, and therefore His, destiny he said.

Mr Bremer may salvage a tiny bit of credibility left if he admit grand failure of the Bush administration, including himself as an inconsequential player, in the whole sorry episode.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive

And a question rarely asked: What did the USA get out of fighting Iraq?

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

The reason for the war with IRAQ was protection for Israel. Saddam used to pay the familys of sucide bombers $25K for the loss of their son or daughter. IRAQ was a close and direct threat to Israel. Now the Israeli rulers are trying to get the US to go after IRAN.

What the invasion of IRAQ will yield is an alliance with IRAN. Let the Israeli’s bleed if they want war. Enough Americans have paid the ultimate price for Israel.

Posted by drmorocco | Report as abusive

Mr Bremer-

I served in Iraq, as part of the coastal warfare unit. We secured and kept the ports and waterways safe..so aid and oil could move- We were told our job was vital, because that oil, was to be sold and then the US would be paid for the cost of the war. Why did that not happen? Where is that oil $$? People say the Iraq war was not about oil, for me, it was- for our unit, it was- Why did I and many others give so much of ourselves to keep those ports open, yet the oil $$ stayed in Iraq. I was in Um Qasr-

Posted by OregonIraqVet | Report as abusive

Who decided to fire the Iraqi police? and disband the military? Thus unemploying millions of men we were trying to earn trust with.. we lost Iraq on Paul’s decisions..generals should not run a civilian city… civilians should not run a country at war..

When you fire a company’s leadership, they go home and deal with it. When you fire a country’s, they go home and build bombs to kill the people that fired them with..thousands of them.

Posted by OregonIraqVet | Report as abusive

A few months ago, Reuters posted a commentary on Obama’s foreign policy toward Lybia from W. Bush’s pitiful and widely panned former UN embassador. Now, we get commentary on Iraq by another Bush crony and architec of a war that was started to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that they never had.

Does Reuters think this is balanced reporting? Might we expect some commentary on race relations someone from the former South African ruling minority or perhaps thoughful analysis on the anti-wall street protests from Bernie Madoff?

What the hell?

Posted by mcoleman | Report as abusive

not bad decision

Posted by atif980 | Report as abusive

Yes, Paul, we have to admit that perhaps no one can sufficiently clean up the horrible mess you made in Iraq. Thanks for nothing.

Posted by AlanHowe | Report as abusive

When one screws-up as badly as Bremer, he should be ignored. He is a proven failure in every respect.
caller tunes

Posted by adeel66 | Report as abusive

Our biggest enemy is domestic, not foreign. Our enemy wants to steal our money committed to our social welfare, which we collected and still collect under cover of FICA, and invade other countries. We must remove them from the governmental process entirely.

Bring all our troops home, from everywhere and bring them home this year. Dismantle all military bases on foreign soil. Our Government cannot be trusted with such powers. They have misused them time and time again, both “parties”.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Mr. Bremer’s comments surely must fall into the category Abraham Lincoln referenced when he said “you can fool some of the people all the time.”

Posted by libertadormg | Report as abusive

I see nothing in our constitution that says we are supposed to police the world. Perhaps we might better spend precious tax payer’s monies on internal and external programs that are of benefit, rather than destruction.

Posted by Marla | Report as abusive

Sorry I repeat same words which are written by Michael Rubin(http://www.commentarymagazine.com/ 2011/10/23/clinton-iran-iraq-strategic-m alpractice/) “the president turns around and hands Iraq to Iran on a silver platter”.US Lost its reputation.USA gives for this loss life of thousands of soldiers & thousands of billions dollars & the most important things USA losses its national interests in Middle East .
I am Kurdish & after this decision , We haven’t more hope for living with other Components( Arab-Sheea & Sunna)in one Iraq.Obama with our Kurdish leaders do same betrayal which was done against Kurdish revolution on 1974.We haven’t more friends…We are 50 Millions alone.We should try to protect our self by new strategic & new alliance . Sorry for my English..

Posted by Niazy | Report as abusive