Out of Iraq in 16 Months: Yes We Can - Yes We Must
Those who supported the Bush invasion and military occupation of Iraq are back at it, warning that President Obama could "imperil" Iraq if he keeps his campaign promise to remove US combat forces within 16 months.
Outgoing Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters last week that "the greatest error the United States could make in Iraq would be a hurried withdrawal."
Former Iraq coalition spokesman Dan Senor warned a Fox News audience that Obama's promise to remove all combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of taking office should be "flexible". Or, as President Bush liked to say, it should be based on "conditions on the ground", not an "arbitrary time-frame set by Washington politicians".
As Yogi Berra would put it: "It's déjà vu all over again!"
Candidate Obama was right to be clear and specific that he will remove all US combat forces from Iraq in 16 months from taking office. President Obama will be just as right when he follows through that commitment as Commander-In-Chief.
The presence of US military forces in Iraq is deeply unpopular with the Iraqi people. One of the biggest barriers to gaining support for the current Status of Forces Agreement from Iraqi officials was the strong public sentiment against allowing US forces to remain after January 1. The election of Barak Obama played an important role in its' ultimate passage precisely because Iraqi officials trusted the president-elect and his commitment to withdraw unwanted US military forces.
I was recently asked by a reporter if it would not be risky for President Obama to stick to his firm time-table for withdrawal of US combat forces. In fact, it would be extremely risky if the president were to choose to back down and NOT to fulfill his commitment.
First of all, it would erode the trust of the Iraqi people and their elected leaders that the United States was committed to fundamentally change its deeply flawed policy and the debacle that policy generated in Iraq. This would bode poorly for the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement when it goes before the Iraqi public in a national referendum in July. The failure of the referendum would send all US troops packing immediately making the transition more abrupt than President Obama's 16 month withdrawal timeline.
The election of President Obama sent a powerfully positive message to the world about the United States at a time when US credibility and respect were at an all-time low. Reversing a fundamental foreign policy pledge within weeks of assuming office could send a dangerous message to the region and the world that the more things change in US leadership, the more they remain the same. It is critical to the US and the success of President Obama's foreign policy for trust and credibility to be restored.
The new Commander-In-Chief is absolutely right to consult with his military commanders on Iraq - just as he pledged he would do as a candidate. But as important as their perspective is, the military frame is only one of many for US Iraq policy. President Obama must consider a wide range of considerations in making his decision, starting with the message that it will send to the citizens and leaders of Iraq, the region and world.
President Obama's pledge to withdraw troops in 16 months was perhaps his most widely known, and supported, pledge during the campaign season. It set him apart during a critical juncture in the presidential primaries. Wavering on this promise so early in his Administration could damage the credibility of his claim that his election represented fundamental change from the politics-as-usual in Washington. The American people would like to believe that it is possible for politicians to mean what they say and say what they mean - both before and after an election.
Despite the sky-is-falling warnings from supporters of the Bush war in Iraq, fulfilling this pledge is highly achievable militarily. A report by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb for the Center for American Progress released in August of last year made this abundantly clear, concluding that an orderly and safe military withdrawal from Iraq could reasonably be achieved in as little as 8 to 10 months. What is required is the political will.
A military withdrawal from Iraq in 16 months? Yes we can and, yes we must!
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