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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“At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 18, 1787, a Mrs. Powel anxiously awaited the results, and as Benjamin Franklin emerged from the long task now finished, asked him directly: “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic if you can keep it” responded Franklin.”
Iraq, like Libya and soon Afghanistan are sovereign countries. The USA has helped to give them a chance at self rule by their own people. A difficult task, as history has proven again and again. But it is not the responsibility of the USA nor would it even be possible to be a permanent police force to guarantee a result of democracy. They may fail and they may end up being the opposite of what we in the US wish, but at some point we have to let them stand on their own. Why not now, since they are selling their oil contracts to China and Russia and refusing judicial protection of our brave soldiers who protect them. Let them work to keep their own government just as we did.

Posted by bondcliff | Report as abusive

dear Viceroy of Bagdad,
You sir along George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfewitz, Donald Rumsfeldt and a cast of henchmen are failures, incompendents and worse. Who should listen to a word you say?

Posted by unionlabor1 | Report as abusive

The individuals governing Iraq are the same ones who provided the information about “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” You can paint it or spin ant way you want but you can’t change reality.

Posted by remery | Report as abusive

By Bremmer’s own words here, compared with his words while in Iraq, he should do the honorable thing and return his President’s Medal of Freedom. Everybody knows Iraq’s future is the pits, as are many Arab Spring nations, but let them handle it themselves.

Posted by Indydog | Report as abusive

Set up Reagan’s “Star Wars” missle defense shield, close our borders, utilize our own energy and other resources, bring our fine citizen warriors home, and to h-e-double hockey sticks with the rest of the world. Life if mighty fine here. Let’s keep it that way.

Posted by wisehiney | Report as abusive

Laughable that L. Paul Bremer would have such cautionary commentary on Iraq. Maybe he should’ve paid a little attention when he was basically running the country after the US invaded the sovereign nation who did nothing directly to us.

He actually had the authority to affect positive change. How did that work out again, Paul?

Posted by mkeffer70 | Report as abusive

Boy, Mr. Bremer sure makes a lot of broad assumptions to make his case, not the least of which is the logic in invading Iraq in the first place.

One of the many reasons I was against the invasion is that there was no strong case made to convince us that we could be successful in invading a Muslim country; overthrowing its government; establishing a new government, the form of which we dictated to the Iraqi people; and then leave assuming, not only that the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds could live together in peace, but also that surrounding antagonist countries, especially Iran, would even allow Iraq to work out their problems. And that’s not even factoring in the cost to America in lives and treasure, to say nothing of the tens? hundreds? of thousands of innocent Iraqis who were maimed or killed. There are so many things that can go wrong that serious problems, possibly insurmountable, were inevitable from the start. Is it really wise to go around throwing the dice on such foreign policy gambles, risking the lives of our soldiers; our national credibility; the cost to tax payers; and the very security of our nation? The National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Iraq War has actually made us less safe. To suggest that if things in Iraq do deteriorate that somehow that Obama’s fault, it simply sad, blatant, political opportunism. That’s like taking a bullet to the head and charging that if I die it’s the doctor’s fault, rather that the person who put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger. What utter nonsense. Whatever happens as a result of our invasion of Iraq, it falls squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush and his warmongering band of neocons.

The truth is, Obama had little choice but to pull us out of Iraq. The Iraqi people want us gone, the American people want us out, and we don’t have the money. Staying in Iraq is not an option, and if things go badly only the most extreme partisans would try to blame Obama, someone who was opposed to the invasion from the start.

One could write volumes on why the Iraq War was a bad idea, but at this point one thing that can’t possibly be ignored, though Bremer has managed to do just that, is that we simply can’t afford to pour any more money into Iraq. The money is just not there. The lingering concerns that Mr. Bremer has about Iraq could continue for another 20 years, or longer. But perhaps Mr. Bremer is of the mind that it’s better to eliminate healthcare to seniors or the poor than to see the Iraqi people go without healthcare. I bet Mr. Bremer can afford his healthcare policy just fine. Heck, we haven’t been willing to pay for the war up to this point. Hasn’t that credit card, issued by the Bank of China, been maxed out already? I know, I know, let struggling Americans eat cake. Better to spend another trillion on Iraq. Perhaps Mr. Bremer and his fellow neocons would be willing to pay for our extended stay in Iraq. Mr. Bremer?

Posted by doggydaddy | Report as abusive

There where no winners in this War. It was not neccessary. Another brilliant Republican President that had all the right answers for the world. Look how much has been lost vs what has been gained. As we head into another election year, Obama actually has done a stellar job with National Security by capturing a decade old man-hunt for Bin Laden, crossing into Pakistan to kill or capture Al Qaida using drones, and he’s prevented any further attacks against the U.S. Additionally, Libya was handled the way it should have been with World allies and Nato taking the lead, with the U.S. providing intelligence. In the end, we didn’t send in any ground forces, and had zero-loss of life all while ridding the world of Dictator Gaddafi. The Republicans and the rest of the haters need to take a page from Obama’s playbook on how things can be done with a cool head prevailing. The U.S. is financially broke now after two wars, and entitlement programs for the public sector that make Bernie Madoff jealous. It’s time we stop spending money on the war machine, and start looking to how we can improve our own country. Stop policing the world, and we’ll be safer anyway!

Posted by schmetterling | Report as abusive

sounds like you’re saying that america should police the middle east

Posted by kingsimperial | Report as abusive

It’s just like “NAM”!!!

Our “Boys & Girls” have died in vain both in Iraq and the continuing WAR in Afganistan!

They’ve done their DUTY to the best of their ability and have presented themselves well! But the leaders WE elected have failed our nation, not knowing when to keep out of conflicts we had or have NO business meddling in!

WADDA WASTE AGAIN!

Posted by Middleclassman | Report as abusive

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

Posted by bluefish | Report as abusive

As one of the great architects of error in Iraq, perhaps Mr. Bremer has learned from his mistakes and has something valuable to say on the subject. Or perhaps he is still trying to blame others for failure, while claiming ownership of any success.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Posted by lapwww | Report as abusive

Among the 75% of Americans opposed to both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, who really cares what happens there? Very, very few indeed and most of those work for profiteers. For that matter, who cares if the Israelis are forced to give Muslims the right to vote?

Not for $1.2 trillion (yes,that is a “t”) per year. Every year. More than enough for our many domestic social programs.

And we do not have a functioning democracy or republic either. Neither can exist with rigged elections, which are the only kind we are permitted. So we, the people, are not responsible for what the oligarchs decree or choose to do. That needs to change.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Why would anyone give any credence to anything Bremer has to say about Iraq? His colossal misjudgments extended the war, give courage to America’s enemies, and were the cause of enormous heartache to military families in the United Sates.

Please have the decency to allow him to live in the obscurity he has so richly earned.

Posted by NewNegotiator | Report as abusive

Not one American soldier or contractor has ever been found guilty or suffered any consequences for murdering Iraqis so we shouldn’t be surprised that our hosts don’t trust our military legal regime to protect them. America, you are reaping what you sowed and when you realize that you spent 1 trillion dollars and 40,000 causualties devastating thousands of American families to make Iraq safe for Iran, something Iran always aspired to but could never do while Saddam was in power, I hope the press has the courage to rub your nose in it.

Posted by bitdigester | Report as abusive

America should by now have recognized that the imperial mindset is very costly to us and is counter productive to the purpose that we gain friends and international political supports by sending troops to foreign lands. The American influences in the world will be enhanced if we can show a economically strong America and every American participates in the prosperity.

Posted by jlpeng | Report as abusive

The decline and fall of *exceptionalism* a la neocons vision of US military intervention and occupation of Iraq has come a full circle with this *Emperor* of Baghad!

Can any one in his/her right mind think or believe the invasion by GWB was in US national interest? Orf was it a neocon strategic vision to upset the miltary outlook in ME?

The decison by POTUS is not only right but long overdue!

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

Dear Viceroy,

Perhaps you can gather a few families along with your own, the Kagans, O’Hanlons and the rest and go back to that unhappy country to keep the peace.

Posted by Bartolo | Report as abusive

I take from many comments that Mr. Brenner’s ministrations are questionable at best. He failed during his time in office. Perhaps it would be better that he abstain from commenting in the subject.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

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