Friday, August 15, 2014

The Second-Guessing of Obama

Before reading Jackson Diehl's latest editorial, I had come to two basic opinions in relation to the current set of accusations against President Obama: First, that the accusation that the President is indecisive on issues of military intervention is largely a canard. When the choice is to intervene or to refrain from intervening, and the U.S. refrains from intervening, you don't need a clear statement from the President, "We're not intervening at this time" in order to figure things out. Second, that the people who were criticizing the President for not being sufficiently decisive were, in fact, the same people who would prefer that our nation err on the side of military intervention.

I do concede that the President's messaging can be wanting, a problem that has existed from the start of his Presidency, as even when nuance and cautious explanation is warranted it can be better for a President's pronouncements on a conflict to be clear and definitive. "We're not intervening in [Nation] at this time because, [brief explanation], but we leave the door open to future intervention if [contingency]" -- for example, "We're not intervening in Iraq at this time, as we believe that our support for the Iraqi government and military, as well as for the Kurds, is sufficient to hold back ISIL, but we will reconsider our position if ISIL continues to advance in Iraq," or, "While we hope that the Iraqi Army will be able to protect the Yazidi people with our continued support, we will call upon our allies and engage in direct military action if that is what becomes necessary to prevent genocide."

Reading Jackson Diehl's editorial, my first thought was, "I doubt that's what the President actually said" -- at least in context. Sometimes a president will make statements in a speech, or in response to a question at a press conference, that don't make much sense -- that can happen to anybody. But the words Diehl ascribes to the President, while using rather inflammatory adjectives, immediately struck me as having been stripped from their larger context,
"What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision."

These words, marrying petulance and implausibility, were spoken by President Obama when he was asked, shortly after the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, whether he regretted withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country during his first term. "That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong," was his startling answer.
Here's the actual exchange:
What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision. Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice -- which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were -- a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.

Having said all that, if in fact the Iraqi government behaved the way it did over the last five, six years, where it failed to pass legislation that would reincorporate Sunnis and give them a sense of ownership; if it had targeted certain Sunni leaders and jailed them; if it had alienated some of the Sunni tribes that we had brought back in during the so-called Awakening that helped us turn the tide in 2006 -- if they had done all those things and we had had troops there, the country wouldn’t be holding together either. The only difference would be we’d have a bunch of troops on the ground that would be vulnerable. And however many troops we had, we would have to now be reinforcing, I’d have to be protecting them, and we’d have a much bigger job. And probably, we would end up having to go up again in terms of the number of grounds troops to make sure that those forces were not vulnerable.

So that entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made.
Let me also add that I appreciate Tom Ricks' evolution on the question of a residual force -- that at first he thought it would have been desirable to keep a residual U.S. combat force in Iraq, but as the situation has worsened he came to realize that such a force would have been inadequate -- and that the U.S. would have been forced to choose between a significant deployment of additional forces or withdrawing from the conflict, neither of which would have been positive outcomes. Obama's statement inclues a similar analysis. Diehl is among those who continue to quibble over the decision to withdraw combat forces, a decision that the President correctly notes was in fact made by the prior administration and was forced by Iraq's refusal to agree to an acceptable status of forces agreement -- and while it may be true that the President didn't go all-out to twist Maliki's arm to allow combat forces to remain, even in hindsight that does not appear to have been a bad decision. Unless, that is, you would prefer that we now have 50,000 combat troops in Iraq, actively fighting on behalf of Maliki in a renewed civil war.

The analysis that the President stated was "bogus" was the absurd notion that keeping a residual combat force in Iraq would have prevented the nation from experiencing the problems that it has experienced as a result of its poor governance under Maliki. Diehl, to his discredit, purports that the President said that it was "bogus" that it was his decision not to try to force Maliki and Iraq to allow for the continued presence of combat forces, or to maintain combat troops in Iraq as a hostile force that was neither welcomed nor extended any legal protection by the (supposedly) sovereign government of Iraq.

Given that Diehl criticizes the Bush Administration for "resist[ing] the conclusion that his toppling of Saddam Hussein had been a mistake and the subsequent occupation was disastrously managed", I thought I would take a look for a column in which he apologized for his own cheerleading of that war and admitted his own mistakes. The closest I found was this,
The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has prompted plenty of analysis of the mistakes made there, along with a few tendentious claims that “the same people” who supported war in Iraq are now pressing for U.S. intervention in Syria. I’m one of those people. So, to paraphrase the polemicists: Did I learn nothing from the last decade? Do I want to repeat the Iraq “fiasco”?
Diehl then argues vociferously for military intervention in Iraq because he believes it will be different than the result iof intervention in Syria, speculating, "As in the Balkans — or Libya — the limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda." Students of history might object, "But, even acknowledging that they helped, it was not actually the air strikes that turned things around in the Balkans, and the aftermath of toppling Qadaffi has destabilized the region and created a host of new security and humanitarian problems." Diehl similarly waxes poetic about "The Surge" and what it supposedly accomplished, despite the fact that the reality is far more complex, and that it was local outreach that helped calm the civil war much more than more boots on the ground. Diehl sneers, "Like the failed U.S. commanders who preceded Gen. David Petraeus, Obama argues that 'there’s no American military solution' in Iraq", as if what we're seeing is an entirely new civil war, and not a civil war that had its roots in prior ethnic conflicts -- not just the civil war that occurred under U.S. occupation, but a history of ethnic, religious and tribal rivalries that started well before Iraq was even a nation state.

This appears to be the answer to his second question, "Do I want to repeat the Iraq 'fiasco'?":
The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.
Frankly, that non-answer was foreshadowed by his use of scare quotes around the word "fiasco". There's nothing in his editorial that suggest that Diehl learned anything from the Iraq intervention, or that it has at all colored his apparent predisposition to shoot first and ask questions later. Although a year later he seems more willing to suggest that the Iraq invasion was "a mistake" for which others should take responsibility, I see no sign that he's reconsidered his own pro-war stance.

Diehl closes with this:
This is not to argue that Obama should dispatch hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops to the region. The point is that a doctrine whose first priority is avoiding U.S. engagement is bound to fail. The goal must be offensive: to defeat those forces that are destroying Iraq and Syria, from the Islamic State to the homicidal regime of Bashar al- Assad. That can be accomplished only with U.S. military and political leadership. And it will require Obama to accept the conclusion he still bitterly resists: that he was wrong.
So... Diehl wants the President to admit that he was "wrong" to not somehow force the presence of a continued combat force in Iraq, or to maintain such troops in the absence of a status of forces agreement? Yet he offers nothing to refute the President's expression that the presence of a combat force would not have rendered Maliki's government any more effective, or Ricks' concerns about an ultimate forced choice of "retreat or take sides and escalate" in the face of civil war?

Leaving aside for the moment that there's far more evidence of error by Diehl than by Obama, whether we're talking about Diehl's urging war in Iraq, his errors of history, or his misrepresentation of the President's statement, Diehl offers here an argument, not a valid conclusion. Diehl falls into the category of pundits who argue that if the President [did something] then we would be looking at an outcome that is better than what we are presently experiencing. This brand of pundit is awful at explaining what the President should have done, or why it would be expected to bring about a better outcome. Let's say that the President had followed Diehl's wish that he topple the Assad regime and assume that what followed would be more stable and more friendly to the west.

Should we recall that ISIL, the entity that moved into Iraq and has renewed that nation's civil war, was a powerful enemy of the Assad regime? Does Diehl truly believe that weaker entities in Syria would have been able to unite and stabilize the country and militarily defeat groups like ISIL? Why should we believe that the attacks Diehl desired would not have led to the same sort of destabilization and fragmentation that we saw in the former Yugoslavia, but with much more profound consequences for the region? In the same sort of military and humanitarian crises we've seen following the intervention in Libya? In the rise of ISIL as the dominant military and political force in Syria, with its tendrils extending into Lebanon and Iraq? Wherever you may find answers to questions of that sort, it won't be from Diehl.

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