Juan Cole: Top 10 Reasons Obama Should Resist Military Plans for American Bases in Iraq





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

I present below the top 10 reasons for which President-Elect Obama should stick to his guns and withdraw US troops from Iraq despite any resistance he may get from the US officer corps and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

In fact, it was little noted in the US press that Gen. Ray Odierno, US commander in Iraq, said at Balad on Sunday,"I expect us, frankly, right now, to be out with our military forces by 2011." So what I am saying does not necessarily run counter to the views of the concerned commanders.

Nevertheless, Odierno's comment contradicted the impression he and his colleagues went on to give the rest of this week. Gareth Porter reviews the evidence that the US military command is trying to get around the provisions of the Status of Forces Agreement that Iraq has concluded with the United States.

The agreement, for instance, calls for all US combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009. But on Dec.12, Gen. Ray Odierno said that thousands of US troops would remain in the cities. Apparently combat troops doing joint operations with their Iraqi counterparts will just be re-categorized as support troops.

MP Ahmad al-Masoudi, a leader of the Sadr Movement, which has 30 seats in parliament, slammed Odierno's remarks. The Sadrists had been opposed to the SOFA, considering it a Trojan Horse for the legitimation of US troop presence in Iraq.

Porter also points to George Will's report of Gates's views on a long-term US troop presence in Iraq:

' He [Gates] stresses, however, that there is bipartisan congressional support for"a long-term residual presence" of perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that the president-elect's recent statements have not precluded that. Such a presence"for decades" has, he says, followed major U.S. military operations since 1945, other than in Vietnam. And he says,"Look at how long Britain has had troops in Cyprus." '

Suspicions of US military resistance to both Obama's and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's plans for US troops to withdraw from Iraq were fueled by an NYT report on the withdrawal plan presented by Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno to Obama that envisioned combat troops remaining after May, 2010, Obama's own deadline. Still, to be fair, not getting out by May 2010 is not the same as not getting out by December 2011.

It should be noted that what seems to have provoked Odierno's own attempt to keep US troops in Iraqi cities through 2009 is his concern that they are needed to ensure that the referendum and 2 elections scheduled for 2009 actually take place and are aboveboard. My guess is that Odierno is afraid that if the US presence is too diminished by December of 2009 when the federal parliamentary elections are scheduled, Iran might well engage in massive vote-buying and install a government hostile to US interests.

On the other hand, Odierno does not appear to share Gates's hopes that 40,000 troops could stay in Iraq in the medium to long term, given the statement he made at Balad that I started with.

Here are the reasons for which a long-term US presence-- of the sort Gates is said by Wills to have advocated-- is completely impractical.

1. The Status of Forces Agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament explicitly calls for all US troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. In fact, the Iraqi cabinet and parliament and notables such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani all wanted a shorter timetable than that. This schedule is the maximum they will put up with.

2. The US military cannot stay in Iraq against the will of the elected government. Those who doubt this principle should look at what happened two decades ago in the Philippines. Or consider Uzbekistan's withdrawal of permission for US to use its bases, in 2005. The diplomatic cost of staying against a country's will is generally too high for Washington to take that risk. Gates can wish for a change of heart on the part of the Iraqi government, but it is highly unlikely to happen.

3. The fatwas or formal legal rulings of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani must be obeyed by all adult Shiites who follow him (the majority in Iraq). He wants US troops out. He pressured al-Maliki to bargain hard over the SOFA, and he was reportedly not happy with the infringement on Iraqi sovereignty in the final version of the SOFA. One fatwa from Sistani could put hundreds of thousands of angry Shiites in the streets protesting any remaining US bases, and there would be no way for the Iraqi government to resist such a demand that it ask the US to leave.

4. The Sadr Movement would never accept a permanent US base in Iraq. The British contingent in Basra took constant mortar and rocket fire from the Mahdi Army, until ultimately the shellshocked Iraqi neighbors of the base in downtown Basra sked the British to move out to the airport. They did so, and went on taking mortar fire out there. They are being withdrawn by June of 2009 by PM Gordon Brown.

5. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its Badr Corps paramilitary would never accept a long-term US presence, since they want to assert control over Iraq themselves. It was touch and go whether they would accept the SOFA, which gives the US military more prerogatives and leaves them in the country longer than ISCI would like.

6. The Sunni Arab guerrillas will never accept a long-term US base. They would also find ways of hitting it, and its very presence would fuel and prolong the Sunni insurgency.

7. Iran would never put up with a long-term US base in Iraq, and would certainly supply Iraqi guerrillas with the weapons needed to hound and harass US troops.

8. Syria would not want a long-term US base, and the Syrian Baath has enough assets in Iraq to ensure that US troops would be under constant attack.

9. The international Salafi Jihadi movement (what the US tends to call al-Qaeda, but the latter is only one part of this larger movement) will be galvanized by any attempt of the US to stay in Iraq for the long term militarily, and a US base in Iraq will produce constant terrorism. The way the US came to Iraq, as an act of unprovoked aggression, left the US presence without any legitimacy, and the Salafi Jihadis will make use of that condition of Illegality to challenge any base.

10. There is no safe place for an American base. A US base near Baghdad would have to be supplied from Kuwait and southern Iraq, and those supply lines could always be cut by angry Shiites and Iran. A US base near Basra in the south would face the same constant attacks and harassment that the British suffered. A US base in Kurdistan would have to be supplied via Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. But Turkey is in conflict with the Kurds, a conflict that could become hot and result in supplies being cut off to the US base. The US military would be in an impossible situation if Turkish-Kurdistan violence broke out, since Turkey is a NATO ally but the Kurds are the only Iraqis that might want a US presence. Moreover, US backing for Baghdad and Nuri al-Maliki's assertion of authority over Kurdish populations outside Kurdistan in Iraq proper have caused the Kurdistan leadership to rethink whether they really want an interfering US military in their area.

A long-term US base in Iraq is a crackpot Neoconservative fantasy that is highly unlikely to be realized. Like all Neocon fantasies, even if it could be realized, it would cause endless trouble and further wars.

President-elect Obama, keep your pledges and redeem the United States by seeking friendship with Iraq rather than supremacy in Iraq.




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Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2008

Obama has actually already violated his promise of immediate withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq that he was making in the midst of his presidential campaign. Later
he changed his promise towards "responsible withdrawl", which may be (and, perhaps, meant to be) interpreted as of withdrawl with indefinite time frame, thus practically giving up to right-wing
Republican design.
It looks like the most of the American
troops currently staying in Iraq will be relocated not back to the US, but to Afghanistan and Kuwait, which would not ease considerable financial burden the maintenance of US troops kept abroad puts on the shoulders of average Americans (not mentioning already all other negative political and ideological consequences).


Jules R. Benjamin - 12/24/2008

If Obama lets himself be trapped by the classic non-policy of "if we leave there will be a bloodbath" he will undermine other possiblilities of his adminstraton. If he feels pressured into supporting some kind of U.S. presence in Iraq, he will have to explain what purpose they will serve. Whatever he might come up with will sound like a betrayal to his supporters.

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