The Politics of Withdrawal

By: Greg C. Reeson

Almost as soon as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced his inclination to support a “pause” in Iraq troop withdrawals this summer, the campaign teams of the two contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Senators Obama and Clinton, issued press releases critical of Gates’ position and reiterated their calls for ending the Iraq war. But the reality is, political primary rhetoric aside, that either a President Obama or a President Clinton would find themselves with little choice upon assuming the presidency but to continue the Iraq policies put in place by President Bush.

Both Democratic candidates have stated unequivocally that they intend to rapidly withdraw American forces from Iraq, and both candidates have Iraq withdrawal plans posted on their campaign web sites. The television and radio airwaves are full of video clips and sound bytes proclaiming that the war will come to a rapid end if a Democrat is elected to the White House. But both candidates probably realize, whether they would admit it publicly or not, that neither will be able to fully make good on their withdrawal pledges.

The Obama plan, released in September of last year, says the Illinois Senator would withdraw one to two combat brigades per month with all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2008. Obviously, the plan would have had to be implemented immediately, and the Obama timeline has by now shifted into 2009. However, recognizing that the realities of the situation in Iraq and in the broader Middle East may prevent a rapid withdrawal, the Obama plan also gives the Senator a way out. According to the plan, the withdrawal would be done in phases, directed by the military commanders on the ground in Iraq in consultation with Iraqi government officials. That provision leads one to assume that if General Petraeus, or whoever else might be in command during an Obama presidency, provided military advice recommending significant troop levels in Iraq for the safeguarding of U.S. national security interests, that advice would be heeded and the withdrawal would be “paused.”

No matter what he says on the campaign trail, Senator Obama clearly understands that he cannot really commit to a position today that may have to be executed under changed conditions in the future, a reality he expressed in late 2006 when he said, “We must exit Iraq, but not in a way that leaves behind a security vacuum filled with terrorism, chaos, ethnic cleansing and genocide that could engulf large swaths of the Middle East and endanger America…We have both moral and national security reasons to manage our exit in a responsible way.”

The Clinton plan, posted on her campaign web site, involves three steps. As president, Senator Clinton would first start troop withdrawals from Iraq within sixty days of becoming commander-in-chief. Second, she would target American aid at any group working toward the stabilization of Iraq, which may or may not include the Iraqi government. And third, she would launch a new diplomatic initiative with regional and global players with an interest in a stable Iraq.

The only one that matters here, though, is the first step of her plan. The key word in that first step, and the one that gives Senator Clinton a way out if the realities in Iraq and the Middle East make a rapid withdrawal dangerous or impractical for the United States, is the word “start.” According to her web site, Senator Clinton, as president, would direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council to develop a plan to “start” bringing our troops home. The plan does not direct a target date for the completion of the withdrawal, nor does it provide the rate at which American forces would be pulled out of Iraq. The implication, of course, is that a Clinton administration would keep its Iraq troop level options open, and that the new president would retain the flexibility to increase or decrease troop levels in response to the conditions on the ground.

Those conditions have, by most measures, improved significantly over the past six months. U.S. and Iraqi casualties are down sharply, as are the number of attacks using improvised explosive devices, small arms fire, and indirect fire weapons such as mortars and rockets. The trend toward a more stable situation is the result of an increased American troop presence in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, the implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy that focuses more on the Iraqi population, the observance of a cease fire by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, and the much heralded “Sunni Awakening” that helped turn the tide against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Politically, progress in Iraq has been painfully slow. Still, progress is being made. Just this week the Iraqi Parliament passed three critical measures that are viewed as positive steps toward national reconciliation: the budget law, a provincial powers law that will allow elections this year, and an amnesty law targeted at Sunnis who have been imprisoned by the thousands, sometimes without charges being brought against them.

To be sure, Iraq still has a long way to go before the American-led mission there can be deemed a success, and there is no guarantee that we will be able to bring about a stable and peaceful Iraq. That is precisely why General Petraeus, President Bush, and Secretary Gates are hinting at a “pause” in troop withdrawals after the last of the surge brigades leaves Iraq this summer. The U.S. military knows all too well that the hard-fought security gains achieved since last August could rapidly disappear if American forces are pulled out before Iraqi troops are fully ready to take over. A temporary halt in the redeployment of our forces makes sense because it gives commanders on the ground an opportunity to assess whether or not the security situation is holding or deteriorating.

Despite what may be said on the campaign trail, both Clinton and Obama are intelligent individuals who understand that conditions and realities can and do change. What is true today may or may not be true tomorrow, or next week, or next year. So both are able to pursue their party’s nomination by appealing to the anti-war base during the primary season, knowing full well that they have left themselves enough wiggle room to make decisions on Iraq that are based on sound military and civilian advice and that best enable them to protect the national security interests of the United States.

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