Widespread uncertainty in Iraq

Jun 23 2014

By IPS, The New York Times and Financial Times

Neo-Cons, Hawks Can?t Get No Iraq Traction

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 21 2014 (IPS) – Despite their ubiquity on television talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages, neo-conservatives and other hawks who propelled the U.S. into war in Iraq 11 years ago are falling short in their efforts to persuade the public and Congress that Washington needs to return.

Indeed, in contrast to the uncritical position taken by virtually all of the country?s media in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, a number of mainstream outlets are openly questioning the advice now being dispensed by the hawks about what to do about the dramatic advances by radical Sunni Islamists across northern and central Iraq over the last ten days.

The most stunning example ? if, for no other reason that it took place on the hawks? favourite news channel ? came this week when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly introduced former Vice President Dick Cheney as ?the man who helped lead us into Iraq in the first place.?

?It?s a lonely job being an interventionist these days.? — Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank

?You said (former Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,? she said. ?You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the (Sunni) insurgency was in the last throes, back in 2005. And you said after our intervention that extremists would have to ?rethink their strategy of jihad.? Now, with almost one trillion dollars spend there, with 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say, ?You were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many???

?Well,? Cheney, who had just co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with his daughter, Liz Cheney, in which they had used the same phrase to describe President Barack Obama?s policy, replied. ?I just fundamentally disagree, Reagan ? uh, Megyn.?

Similarly, the normally staid and respectful New York Times published what could only be described as a mocking profile of Bush?s former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, for his tirades against Obama?s policies. The article referred to the ?homecoming week for the Bush administration? featuring a ?cavalcade of neoconservatives newly emerged on cable television and in hawkish policy seminars to say ?We told you so? on Iraq.?

And when Republican Sen. John McCain, perhaps the strongest voice in Congress for intervention in Syria, called on the Senate floor for ?immediate action? against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to prevent their further advance toward Baghdad, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank asked simply, ?When John McCain makes a case for war, does anyone hear him??

Indeed, the scepticism that has greeted the Iraq war hawks over the past week has been so strong that Michael Rubin, a colleague of Bolton?s at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) ? the neo-conservative think tank that played a leading role in both planning and cheerleading the 2003 invasion ? felt compelled to complain about ?Media McCarthyites? who are allegedly stifling legitimate policy debate.

But, as Milbank pointed out, ?It?s a lonely job being an interventionist these days.? Polls over the past several years have consistently shown a public that is more than war-weary. Disillusionment has grown not only with Washington?s military interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with the effectiveness of U.S. military power in general.

A poll conducted by Ipsos/Reuters last week found that 55 percent of respondents opposed U.S. military intervention of any kind, while only 20 percent supported it, and that there was little difference between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Those trends have clearly damaged the political standing and credibility of the hawks, especially those ? such as Cheney, Bolton, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol ? who played such prominent roles in promoting the Iraq war and are now calling for renewed intervention, at least in the form of air strikes, if not re-introducing U.S. combat forces.

Their diminished influence was made clear already nine months ago when they failed to rally lawmakers ? even most Republicans ? behind air strikes against military and other government targets in Syria after Obama accused Damascus of carrying out a chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians.

The hawks now face a similar problem on Iraq. Thus far, even the Republican leadership in Congress appears satisfied with the steps announced by Obama Thursday ? enhanced aerial surveillance by U.S. drones and aircraft and the dispatch of up to 300 military advisers to help reverse ISIL?s advance, possibly in preparation for air strikes against targets deemed threatening to U.S. national-security interests.Washington is also pressing Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whom virtually all observers here blame for systematically alienating Iraq?s Sunni population, to renounce a third term or agree to share power in a way that can swing major sectors in the Sunni opposition to the government?s side.

While most Iraq specialists here have insisted that air strikes or any additional U.S. military commitment be conditioned on Maliki?s agreement to these terms, as well as a major diplomatic effort designed to enlist the help of Iraq?s neighbours ? most importantly Iran and Saudi Arabia ? in stabilising the country, the hawks have argued that Washington lacks the military leverage (meaning tens of thousands of U.S. troops) to bring about such a solution.

For this, they blame Obama?s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops in 2011 after the Iraqi parliament declined to act on a deeply unpopular Status of Forces agreement (SOFA) that would have provided legal immunity to any remaining U.S. forces.

Indeed, consistent with their more general efforts at depicting Obama?s foreign policy as one of weakness and retreat, the hawks have focused most of their commentary on the withdrawal decision as the cause of the current crisis ? as opposed to their own responsibility for the 2003 invasion and its consequences, including the destruction of the Iraqi state and the rise of sectarianism ? than on what the U.S. should do now in the face of ISIL?s offensive.

Israel-centred neo-conservatives are especially worried about the administration?s interest in engaging Iran on Iraq, a development that began last week with a high-level ? albeit brief ? meeting alongside ongoing international talks on Tehran?s nuclear programme.

When a prominent Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham, endorsed the notion that Tehran, which, like Washington, has supported the Maliki government, could play a key role in dealing with ISIL ? thus giving the administration political cover for pursuing the option ? neo-conservatives objected vehemently.

?The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful a notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe,? wrote neo-conservatives Michael Doran, a top Bush Middle East aide, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the Washington Post.

That theme was picked up by the Cheneys who wrote that ?only a fool? would engage Iran on Iraq, ignoring the ?reality? ? as former Secretary of State James Baker (and Dick Cheney?s colleague in the Bush I administration) ? put it, ?that Iran is already the most influential external player in Iraq and so any effort without Iranian participation will likely fail.?

Of course, one of the many unintended consequences of the 2003 invasion and the Shi?a ascendancy during the U.S. occupation was to move Iraq much closer to Iran.(END)

Relief Over U.S. Exit From Iraq Fades as Reality Overtakes Hope


WASHINGTON ? Standing in Al Faw palace in Baghdad, surrounded by an artificial lake and the ragged remnants of eight years of war, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. felt a surge of emotion on that day in December 2011.

He had gone to Iraq to note the end of an era, the departure of American troops from a country that had cost his own so much. Ebullient, he praised the troops, congratulated the generals, wished Iraqi leaders good luck and called President Obama to share his excitement.

?All I?ve said about this job, I take it back,? Mr. Biden later recalled telling Mr. Obama. ?Thank you for giving me the chance to end this goddamn war.?

?Joe,? he remembered the president responding, ?I?m glad you got to do it.?

For two men who had run for office on the promise of getting out of Iraq, it seemed like a moment of validation. But that moment has proved achingly ephemeral. It was not the end of the war or even the end of their involvement.

Two and a half years later, Mr. Obama has ordered up to 300 Special Operations members back to Iraq and may yet authorize airstrikes to prevent the collapse of the government at the hands of a brutal Islamic insurgency.

The journey from then to now is a tale of premature celebration and dashed hopes. A president who thought he had set Iraq on a more stable course that could be sustained without American help has now determined that American diplomacy and power are critical to saving it. Tired of war, like most Americans, he found his aspiration to move on bedeviled by forces tearing across a region in a story punctuated by miscalculation and missed opportunities.

The withdrawal ceremony on that winter day in 2011 was, in the end, the result of a failed negotiation. In theory, both Mr. Obama and the Iraqi leadership wanted a small American detachment to stay behind. In reality, neither side was enthusiastic and seemed just as happy that a dispute over legal conditions scotched the deal.

The residual troops would not have been a combat force, but might have mounted counterterrorism missions and helped Iraqi forces gain better intelligence on the militants. Whether it would have made a difference is impossible to know, but will be a subject of debate for a long time.

Just as important if not more so, however, was the impact of the civil war in next-door Syria. Few if any expected on that day in 2011 just how far the Syria conflict would escalate, leading to the creation of virulent new Islamist jihadist groups like the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS or sometimes ISIL, that would ultimately spill over the border and threaten Baghdad.

?The notion that Syria would completely fall apart and become this major staging ground for Nusra and ISIS, which wasn?t even ISIS at the time, I don?t think people anticipated and I don?t think could have been anticipated,? said Colin Kahl, who was the Pentagon official in charge of Iraq until the withdrawal.

But in the months that followed, as Syria degenerated into a toxic stew of rebellion and jihadism, some inside and outside the administration warned of the dangers of a broader regional destabilization. The administration overestimated the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and underestimated the power of ISIS. And it felt stymied by Iraqi leaders and a Syria crisis that it considered beyond its control.

?We?ve had to overcome Iraqi reluctance, political dysfunction and the chaos in Syria,? said Antony J. Blinken, the president?s deputy national security adviser and a key player on Iraq policy. ?It was a work very much in progress when ISIL launched its offensive.?

At various points, the president approved modest measures to shape the Syria conflict but resisted a broader intervention, afraid of another Iraq. Now he finds himself facing another Iraq anyway ? in Iraq. And the war that Mr. Biden cursed is again cursing the Obama administration.

Quieted War Offers Hope

Mr. Obama came to office vowing to withdraw from Iraq but he largely followed an agreement signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki committing the United States to leave by the end of 2011. Both Washington and Baghdad had imagined that they would negotiate a new agreement for a small residual force after that.

But as 2011 opened, the war had quieted down. After a troop increase ordered by Mr. Bush, a strategy shift by Gen. David H. Petraeus and a change of sides by Sunni militias, Mr. Maliki?s government seemed in a strong position. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander on the ground, developed proposals for keeping as many as 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011, only to run into instant resistance.

?The White House looks at the 20,000 number and was like, you?ve got to be kidding,? Mr. Kahl recalled. ?This looks like a permanent Korea-style presence in Iraq, which nobody supported.? Mr. Obama?s appointees concluded that the military was trying to still do everything it was doing before, just with fewer troops, rather than changing the mission to reflect a more reduced role. At a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, made clear that was not acceptable.

Pentagon officers and General Austin?s team refined the plans, developing options of 19,000 troops, 16,000 troops and 10,000 troops. The general preferred the highest number and deemed the lowest unwise. Mr. Biden aggressively pushed for a smaller force. Tom Donilon, the president?s national security adviser, asked Mr. Gates if he could live with 10,000. Mr. Gates said he could.

At a May 19 meeting, Mr. Obama decided to keep up to 10,000 troops and on June 2 talked with Mr. Maliki by secure video to open the discussions. To help negotiate an agreement, the administration brought back Brett McGurk, a Bush aide who had negotiated the original 2008 withdrawal deal. But the talks quickly foundered on the question of maintaining legal protections for American troops from Iraqi law. The 2008 agreement had been approved by Iraq?s Parliament, and Pentagon lawyers insisted a follow-on agreement would have to be as well.

Though Mr. Maliki was willing to send it to Parliament, chances of passage seemed slim. Kurdish leaders supported it, but Sunni and other Shiite leaders did not. Mr. Maliki suggested instead that he sign an executive agreement guaranteeing immunity for American troops and Mr. McGurk supported that, arguing that the need to keep some troops was worth some risk. But lawyers in Washington rejected it, and even Iraq?s chief justice quietly advised it had to be approved by Parliament.

Even as that debate raged, the White House was rethinking the 10,000-troop option. Mr. Obama was locked in tense deficit negotiations with Republicans and the cost of a residual force weighed on the discussions. Officials concluded that one part of the planned mission, keeping troops along the line dividing Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq, was unnecessary. With that discarded, they reduced the plan to 5,000 troops.

James Jeffrey, then ambassador to Iraq, said it was clear that some around the president were not eager to stay.

?Certainly there were people close to him in the White House that were uncomfortable with his decision,? he said, ?and every time we were running into trouble trying to get the Iraqis to go along, they wanted to pull the plug.?

But he added that the immunity dispute left them little choice. Without parliamentary approval of the agreement, American troops would fall under Iraqi legal jurisdiction, a position rejected by the Pentagon. Ultimately, Mr. Obama had enough. ?He wasn?t going to beg the Iraqis to let us stay,? Mr. Kahl said.

On Oct. 21, Mr. Obama talked with Mr. Maliki by video again and they agreed that American troops would pull out by the end of the year according to the original agreement. Neither seemed unhappy.

?We really didn?t want to be there and he really didn?t want us there,? said a former senior White House official. ?It?s not like Maliki went out of his way to get a deal. It was almost a mutual decision, not said directly to each other, but in reality that?s what it became. And you had a president who was going to be running for re-election, and getting out of Iraq was going to be a big statement.?

Reason for Optimism

For Mr. Biden, that day in December 2011 was suffused with emotion ? not triumph, a former aide said, but a sense that they had put Iraq back on a stable course and put an end to a terrible catastrophe for the United States.

?That?s why I ran for president in the first place,? Mr. Biden said in an interview last year. The same was true for Mr. Obama. ?He felt as happy and as fulfilled as I did,? Mr. Biden said. ?He knew it meant a lot to me. And it meant a lot to him.?

Mr. Obama at the time called it a ?moment of success? and said ?we?re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government.?

There was reason for optimism. The insurgency seemed exhausted and the remaining threat could be managed by a newly trained Iraqi Army. An intelligence assessment at the time concluded that without American troops ?things might get a little worse than they were in 2011 but Iraq would not fall off the rail,? Mr. Kahl recalled.

But ominously, the intelligence analysts said a few things could change their conclusion: There could be a major external shock. Iraq?s government could overreact to residual bombings by alienating the Sunni minority. And Iraqi factions could fail to resolve outstanding differences.

Those caveats, Mr. Kahl said, proved ?fairly prescient.? Within days of the departure, the Maliki government issued an arrest warrant for a Sunni vice president accused of orchestrating bombing attacks. Mr. Maliki began consolidating power at the expense of Sunni leaders.


President Obama last Thursday, announcing steps to shore up Iraqi forces against Sunni insurgents. Credit Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
The year 2012 was relatively quiet in terms of violence but some saw signs of a resurgent problem. Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, briefed the National Security Council staff on indicators of a reviving insurgency, but officials said there was internal debate over whether his numbers showed what he said they did.

With American troops gone, Mr. Obama focused his attention on other issues, not to mention his re-election. There was ample evidence that Mr. Maliki might return to the sort of sectarian approach that alienated Sunnis in the past, sowing the sort of disaffection that would ultimately create an environment that would prove fertile for ISIS. But Mr. Obama had no regular contact with Mr. Maliki, leaving it to others to manage.

?The last three years saw a continuous erosion of Iraq?s institutions ? from the marginalization of Parliament to the politicization of the military and judiciary ? without much or any public criticism or U.S. pushback from the highest levels,? said Meghan O?Sullivan, who was Mr. Bush?s deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Obama believed it was time for Iraq to handle its own affairs.

?It?s hard to say the president should spend every week nurturing this guy and keep troops in there,? said Mr. Jeffrey, who also served as a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush. ?The whole purpose of propping it up is so it will stand on its own.?

?You Could See This Coming?

At that time the Syria civil war was raging and the scattered remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq were reconstituting themselves as ISIS. ?You could see this coming,? said another administration official. ?It was a little dot and it was growing and growing and growing.? But the official said that while some raised alarms, senior levels in Washington were not focused on the implications for Iraq until a year ago.

Other officials blamed Iraqi leaders who were not all that interested in American help. In early 2012, Obama advisers said they tried to create a joint ?fusion center? in Baghdad to share intelligence, but the Iraqis backed out. Similarly, in March 2012, when Iraq was hosting an Arab League summit meeting, the Americans offered to conduct surveillance flights for security, but Mr. Maliki said no.

?Iraq kept a distance until about a year ago when the pressure from western Iraq was threatening the state,? said Mr. Donilon, who stepped down as national security adviser in mid-2013. ?They failed to deal with it and exacerbated it through the political process.?

Iraqi leaders began asking Washington for help and the administration responded by increasing military sales. It could provide small arms and Hellfire missiles but Iraq had only two Cessna planes to carry such missiles. The administration pushed Congress to authorize the sale or lease of Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, but lawmakers were wary of empowering Mr. Maliki, who they feared might use the power to strengthen his political hand.

Mr. Maliki came to Washington last October seeking aid and Mr. Obama authorized setting up a targeting cell in Baghdad to help Iraqis combat the growing threat from ISIS. A group of Special Operations members ? ?small double digits,? according to one official ? were sent to the United States Embassy in Baghdad, the largest American diplomatic outpost in the world, but were limited in what they could do. The Americans flew just one surveillance flight a month over Iraq at the time.

Suicide bombings spiked, up from five a month when the Americans left to 50 a month by last winter. Then came the fall of Falluja and Ramadi in western Iraq in January. While stunned, the administration responded with only modest efforts to turn the tide, still unwilling to consider a more robust intervention. American officials focused on making sure Mr. Maliki went through with April elections in hopes of defusing political unrest.

?From virtually the day our troops left because the Iraqi people wanted them out, we pressed Baghdad to accept our security assistance? and ?urged its leaders to govern inclusively,? Mr. Blinken said. ?In 2013, when Syria added accelerant to ISIL, Baghdad finally began to welcome our help and we?ve been building it quietly ever since, with arms, intelligence and advice.?

By the time Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar fell this month, it was too late. Like Mr. Bush before him, Mr. Obama misjudged the American-trained Iraqi forces, which melted away in the face of the ISIS advance. The White House was stunned, and Mr. Obama confronted the choice of letting Iraq sink into a fratricidal civil war with a safe haven for Islamic jihadists or re-engaging in a place he wanted to leave. Mr. Biden was back on the phone with Mr. Maliki, calling from a trip in Latin America. And some wondered whether the results in Iraq foreshadow a similar result after Mr. Obama?s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The debate in recent days examined a range of options, from letting Iraq handle its own problems to launching airstrikes on ISIS forces. Mr. Obama tried to ?resist calls to leap before we look,? one aide said. He chose what another adviser called the ?70 percent? option, ordering Special Operations Forces to help the Iraqi government assess the threat. Surveillance flights were up to more than 30 a day. An aircraft carrier was moved into the Persian Gulf, with the option of delivering strikes.

But Mr. Obama rejected a full-scale return. ?We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,? he said in announcing his decision. ?Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.?

America?s neocons have been jolted back to life

By Edward Luce – Financial Times

Today?s world, with all its seeming chaos, is fertile ground for Bush-era conservatives

Like a corpse that sits bolt upright when electrocuted, US neoconservatives keep springing back to life. The electric charge comes at regular intervals ? Syria?s use of chemical weapons, Russia?s annexation of Crimea, China?s growing maritime assertiveness, and now the return of Sunni extremism in Iraq. Their rehabilitation is abetted by the television networks: whenever there is a global setback, the same old faces run for the cameras and claim it is 1939. That is what they do. And the media loves them for it.

But there is something more credible about their current revival. Maybe that twitch is a 2016 presidential hopeful wondering whether there might, after all, be something to the doctrine they espouse. Churchill?s definition of a fanatic is someone who can?t change their mind and won?t change the subject. Every now and then the subject turns their way. Today?s world, with all its seeming chaos, offers neoconservatives their best conversational opening since September 11 2001.

There are three things behind their growing self-confidence. First, the US public has stopped listening to Barack Obama, their supposed nemesis. Mr Obama?s declining popularity derives largely from his inability to get things done at home. On the face of it, US public opinion supports his foreign policy goals. Overseas entanglements are unpopular. American boots on foreign ground are deeply unpopular. Mr Obama has been catering to the public on both counts. By the end of next year there will be no US troops in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Yet beneath the headlines, Americans still want to be reminded that their country is the world?s leader. Recent events have cast that into doubt. Mr Obama?s landslide election was a repudiation of George W Bush, the man who gave neocons their global moment. Ergo the US public?s repudiation of Mr Obama is an opportunity for their return. By the simple laws of hydraulics, the neocons are back.

Second, memories are short. In the swirling chaos of today?s Iraq, it is easy to forget what was behind it all. Mr Bush?s Iraq invasion took place before Facebook existed and before anyone had heard of Mr Obama. It is true that Dick Cheney, perhaps the most doubt-free exponent of the Iraq war, was booed off stage last week when he laid blame for the Iraq chaos at Mr Obama?s door. ?Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,? he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. The former vice-president is not noted for his deep self-knowledge. His reception was thoroughly deserved.

Yet his enablers are returning to respectability. Washington?s TV studios now play regular hosts to the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Robert Kagan and other members of the Project for the New American Century, the neocon group that was formed in the 1990s. None make any apology for their previous views on Iraq. Their closest friend is the media?s amnesia ? or perhaps its appetite for infotainment. Mr Cheney may be discredited, even among his own crowd. But those who lent him intellectual respectability are back.

Churchill?s definition of a fanatic is someone who can?t change their mind and won?t change the subject
Third, after a prolonged hiatus, geopolitics is returning with a vengeance. Unlike in the 1990s, when the neocons first gained serious influence, democracy is no longer obviously on the march around the world. History is not over. Back then, neocons offered themselves as the vanguard of the US unipolar moment. Today they claim America is in decline. On this point they may be right ? though not for the reasons they state. The economic rise of others has diluted its relative dominance. The neocons say that US decline is the temporary effect of a weak president. They believe it can be reversed by a simple act of will.

On this they are wrong. But the facts tend to fit with their world view. Three months ago President Vladimir Putin of Russia pulled off Europe?s first territorial annexation since the second world war. There was precious little Mr Obama could do about it. The Middle East is digging itself ever further into sectarian battle lines. Again, Mr Obama is seemingly powerless. And China acquires a little bit more clout and military reach with each passing year. Ditto for Mr Obama?s weakness. If this looks like a world in which others are challenging US hegemony, that is because it is. All grist to the neocon world view.

The reality is that it is a world they have hastened into being. America?s global power derives almost as much from its credibility as from its economic and military might. The TV networks may have moved past Abu Ghraib, water boarding and Lynndie England. The Arab world has not. The men who predicted that Baghdad would greet US troops with flowers are back on our screens telling us how to fix Iraq. With a straight face they are blaming Mr Obama for the mess it is now in. Strange though it seems, they have become respectable again. Mr Obama, meanwhile, is sending 300 military ?advisers? to help Nouri al-Maliki?s government.

Half a century ago, John F Kennedy did the same in Vietnam. He, too, was caught in a dilemma about aiding a government that was fuelling the insurgency that threatened to topple it. His generation, too, had its best and brightest. On Iraq, as with Vietnam, the act of remembering is essential.

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