Twenty-two months is a bit longer than the 16 months candidate Obama favored. Indeed, as David Freddoso on The Corner observes, "For those paying attention, that is exactly how long President Bush planned on staying in Iraq." Change.
Still, I oppose a specific deadline. So, before 2012, I hope the President reads Kenneth Pollack's op-ed in Thursday's New York Times.
A word about Pollack: By the end of the Clinton Administration, Pollack was director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, where he was the principal working-level official responsible for implementation of U.S. policy toward Iraq. Previously, he had served as the NSC's Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs following seven years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst. Pollack's a Democrat, and no cheerleader for President Bush -- indeed, a critic of post-invasion Iraq policy, especially in his 2008 book, A Path Out of the Desert.
Yet, in September 2002, Pollack published The Threatening Storm, the single best assembly of facts supporting invading Iraq. The book was touted by lefties (e.g., Joshua Micah Marshall) and righties (e.g., me) alike -- indeed, even liberal New Yorker editor David Remnick called the work "the most comprehensive and convincing case for the use of force in Iraq."
Pollack remains a keen observer of Iraq issues, and now serves as Director of Research at the (lefty) Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. His latest analysis, co-authored with his Brookings colleague Michael O'Hanlon, in Thursday's New York Times is fact-based and non-ideological:
The Iraq war isn’t over. And while President Obama’s apparent decision to withdraw the bulk of American troops by August 2010 is not necessarily a mistake, it cannot be carried out rigidly. If all continues to go well, it should be eminently feasible; if not,the administration will have to show the strategic wisdom to slow down as needed to deal with problems.The far left continues to insist that Obama withdraw from Iraq immediately. The President need not satisfy such extremists--nothing short of pacifism will.
Having just returned from a trip to the country arranged by the top American commander there, Gen. Ray Odierno, we agree that Iraq continues to make tremendous strides, thanks to American assistance and, increasingly, the efforts of Iraqi politicians and security forces. But both those ready to dust off the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner and declare victory and those who continue to see Iraq as an inherent disaster that must simply be abandoned have to realize that continued American involvement will be crucial for several more years.
Young democracies are fragile entities. Political scientists generally agree that achieving a peaceful and credible second round of elections is critical in putting a new democracy on a path toward stability, because such elections test whether the country can accomplish a nonviolent transfer of power.
Iraq is holding its second round of real elections this year. It just concluded extremely successful provincial votes, and national parliamentary elections are to follow. Iraq’s calendar this year is also jam-packed with other important political events. If the United States can help the Iraqis secure even modestly positive outcomes for these events, we will have gone a long way toward realizing our goals of sustainable stability in Iraq and bringing most of our troops home next year.
Iraq is no longer convulsed by the chaos, sectarianism and terrorism that were driving it into all-out civil war in 2006. To be sure, friction remains, most notably in the ethnically diverse city of Mosul in the north, where coalition forces have only recently been reinforced to the point where they can conduct the kind of counterinsurgency campaign that secured the rest of the country. Unfortunately, they are racing against the clock to do so, since the recently signed security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires American combat forces to leave Iraq’s cities by June 30.
But the main challenge now is that some key political players, strengthened by Iraq’s enormous recent progress, are less interested in moving their country forward than in using every tool at their disposal to put themselves in advantageous positions after the American withdrawal. Worse still, some -- perhaps many -- are doing so by exploiting the immaturity of the political process and the ambiguities in Iraq’s constitution.. . .
The Obama administration has been handling the Iraq war pragmatically so far. And while announcing a timetable poses a serious risk, the details of Mr. Obama’s plan leaked to the press this week are promising, especially leaving behind a large residual force including trainers and quick-reacting "maneuver units" and slowing the drawdown by three months relative to what he had promised on the campaign trail. Those few months are vital, as they should give the Iraqis adequate time to form their new government before the American troop levels are vastly diminished. Ideally, whatever he announces now, Mr. Obama will remain flexible, and slow the pace next year if necessary.
Given Iraq’s strategic significance, the mission ceased to be a "war of choice" the moment American forces crossed the border in March 2003. Now we have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability. . .
In addition, we cannot overlook Iraq’s enormous regional significance. President Obama has rightly insisted that the Bush administration committed cardinal sins by failing to engage Syria and Iran in its regional strategy and by remaining aloof from the Israeli-Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts for too long. But any broader Middle Eastern agenda is hostage to the situation in Mesopotamia. If Iraq slips back into chaos, President Obama is going to find little desire among Jordanians, Saudis, Syrians and Turks for taking the hard steps to forge a durable peace with Israel -- or among Iranians to reach a rapprochement.
In the end, it is up to the Iraqis to make their nation peaceful and productive -- we should not baby-sit Iraq through all of its problems as a young democracy. But it faces one last crucially tense period in the coming 12 to 18 months. American interests argue strongly for using all the leverage we have gained among Iraqis during six years of intense partnership to help Iraq through its "year of transitions" -- then we can bring our troops home quickly, but responsibly.
Setting a deadline for exit of our forces vitiates much of our remaining influence, shifting the advantage to the advocates of anarchy. Obama's been wrong about Iraq before--most famously insisting that the surge would fail. The President should ask whether he might be wrong again, and consider the more reasoned analysis of O'Hanlon and Pollack. A draw-down, not an inflexible deadline.