The New York Times is reporting about an
evolution" in president-elect Barack Obama's thinking on Iraq, citing
his recent statements about his plan to keep a "residual force" in
the country and his pledge to "listen to the recommendations of my commanders"
as Obama prepares to assume actual command of US forces. "At the Pentagon
and the military headquarters in Iraq, the response to the statements this week
from Mr. Obama and his national security team has been akin to the senior officer
corps' letting out its collective breath," the Times reported. "[T]the
words sounded to them like the new president would take a measured approach
on the question of troop levels."
The reality is there is no "evolution."
Anyone who took the time to cut past Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric of "change"
and bringing an "end" to the Iraq war realized early on that the now-president-elect
had a plan that boiled down to a down-sizing and rebranding of the occupation.
While he emphasized his pledge to withdraw US "combat forces" from
Iraq in 16 months (which may or may not happen), he has always said that he
intends to keep "residual forces" in place for the foreseeable future.
It's an interesting choice of terms. "Residual" is defined as "the
quantity left over at the end of a process." This means that the forces
Obama plans to leave in Iraq will remain after he has completed his "withdrawal"
plan. No matter how Obama chooses to label the forces he keeps in Iraq, the
fact is, they will be occupation forces.
Announcing his national security team this week, Obama reasserted his position.
"I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with
the understanding that it might be necessary likely to be necessary
to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support,
to protect our civilians in Iraq." While some have portrayed this as Obama
going back on his campaign pledge, it is not. What is new is that some people
seem to just now be waking up to the fact that Obama never had a comprehensive
plan to fully end the occupation. Most recently, from the New York Times:
"On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama offered a pledge that electrified
and motivated his liberal base, vowing to 'end the war' in Iraq," wrote
reporter Thom Shanker on Thursday. "But as he moves closer to the White
House, President-elect Obama is making clearer than ever that tens of thousands
of American troops will be left behind in Iraq, even if he can make good on
his campaign promise to pull all combat forces out within 16 months."
For many months it's been abundantly clear that Obama's Iraq plan is at odds
with his campaign rhetoric. Yet, Shanker writes, "to date, there has been
no significant criticism from the antiwar left of the Democratic Party of the
prospect that Mr. Obama will keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for at
least several years to come." The Times is actually right about
this, in a literal sense. There has seldom, if ever, been a public peep about
Obama's residual force plans for Iraq from members of his own party, including
from those who describe themselves as "antiwar."
But, for those who have scrutinized Obama's plans and the statements of his
advisors from the beginning, this is old news. Obama never defined "ending
the war" as removing all US forces from Iraq. Besides the counsel of
his closest advisors many of whom are pro-war hawks Obama's Iraq
plan is based on two primary sources: the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton
"Iraq Study Group" and the 2007 Iraq supplemental spending bill, which,
at the time was portrayed as the Democrats' withdrawal plan. Both envisioned
a sustained presence of US forces for an undefined period following a "withdrawal."
In supporting the 2007 supplemental, Obama said it would put the US "one
signature away from ending the Iraq War." The bill would have redeployed
US forces from Iraq within 180 days. But that legislation, vetoed by President
Bush, would also have provided for 20,000 to 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq
as "trainers," "counter-terrorist forces," or for "protection
for embassy/diplomats," according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy
Studies. The bill contained no language about how many "private contractors"
could remain in Iraq. This helped shed light on what Obama actually meant by
"ending the Iraq War."
Other glaring clues to the actual nature of Obama's Iraq plan to anyone paying
attention could be found in the public comments of his advisors, particularly
on the size of the force Obama may leave in Iraq after his withdrawal is complete.
Obama has refused to talk numbers, saying in October, "I have tried not
to put a number on it." That has been the position of many of his loyal
aides. "We have not put a number on that. It depends on the circumstances
on the ground," said Susan Rice, Obama's nominee for UN ambassador, during
the campaign. "It would be worse than folly, it would be dangerous, to
put a hard number on the residual forces."
But, Richard Danzig, President Clinton's former Navy Secretary who may soon
follow Robert Gates as Obama's Defense Secretary, said during the campaign that
the "residual force" could number as many as 55,000 troops. That doesn't
include Blackwater and other mercenaries and private forces, which the Obama
camp has declared the president-elect "can't rule out [and] won't rule
out" using. At present there are more "contractors" in Iraq than
soldiers, which is all the more ominous when considering Obama's Iraq plan.
In April, it was revealed that the coordinator of Obama's Iraq working group,
Colin Kahl, had authored a paper, titled "Stay on Success: A Policy of
Conditional Engagement," which recommended, "the US should aim to
transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000-80,000 forces)
by the end of 2010 (although the specific timelines should be the byproduct
of negotiations and conditions on the ground)." Kahl tried to distance
the views expressed in the paper from Obama's official campaign position, but
they were and are consistent.
In March, Obama advisor Samantha Power let the cat out of the bag for some
people when she described her candidate's 16-month timetable for withdrawing
US "combat" forces as a "best case scenario." Power said,
"He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential
candidate or a US Senator." (After that remark and referring to Sen.
Hillary Clinton as a "monster," Power resigned from the campaign.
Now that Obama is president-elect, Power's name has once again resurfaced as
a member of his transitional team.)
The New York Times also raised the prospect that Obama could play semantics
when defining his 16-month withdrawal plan, observing, "Pentagon planners
say that it is possible that Mr. Obama's goal could be accomplished at least
in part by relabeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat
troops could be 're-missioned,' their efforts redefined as training and support
for the Iraqis."
Compare all of the above with a statement Obama made in July: "I intend
to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff
in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war responsibly,
deliberately, but decisively."
Some may now accuse Obama of flip-flopping. The reality is that we need to
understand what the words "end" "war" "residual"
and "decisively" mean when we hear Obama say them.