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“Who Lost Iraq” Debate Fails to Get Traction

Iraq war hawks have launched broadsides against the Obama administration for allowing the U.S. role in the conflict to wind down, but no one seems to be listening.

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Inter Press Service

Weeks after President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next month, a familiar clutch of neo-conservative hawks and prominent Republicans are blaming the president for "losing" the Middle Eastern country to its neighbour and long-time Washington nemesis, Iran.

But their effort is failing to gain traction, in part due to the public's war fatigue, as well as some pushback by critics who argue that the withdrawal could work to Washington's long-term strategic advantage.

Nonetheless, the hawks' fury over Obama's decision has been unrelenting since the day he announced it last month. Obama reportedly made the decision when it became clear after months of negotiations that the Iraqi parliament would not agree to provide immunity to the 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops Washington wanted to retain as "trainers" for the Iraqi armed forces.

"Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq," declared Fred and Kimberly Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for the Study of War, respectively, immediately after Obama's announcement in what soon became a mantra of mainly Republican hawks.

"In a year that also saw the 'Arab Spring,' it will ultimately be Iran that emerges ascendant in Iraq and throughout the Middle East," the husband-and-wife team wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

"Henceforth, Iranian proxy militias are likely to expand their training bases in southern Iraq and use them as staging areas for operations throughout the Persian Gulf," they predicted.

"I think it's an absolute disaster," Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), one of the architects, along with the Kagans, of the U.S. 2007-08 "surge" of more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements into Iraq, told the Washington Times. "We won the war in Iraq, and we're now losing the peace."

"Three years and a won war had given Obama the opportunity to establish a lasting strategic alliance with the Arab world's second most important power," wrote the Washington Post's leading neo- conservative writer in a column last Friday. "Our friends did not have to be left out in the cold to seek Iranian protection."

The column, whose title "Who Lost Iraq?" recalled the poisonous "Who Lost China" debate that ushered in the McCarthy period of the early 1950's, argued that Obama and his political advisers had all but sabotaged the Pentagon's efforts to reach agreement with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to retain a military presence of at least 20,000 U.S. troops indefinitely.

Some prominent Republicans, including the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, have echoed that message.

"The Iranians are already hailing it as a great victory and, for once, they're right," he told reporters last week, while others wondered how it could be that, as noted by the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board, the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Iraq after an eight-year war, when the U.S. left 300,000 troops in Germany for decades after World War II and retained tens of thousands of troops in Japan and South Korea.

Nonetheless, the campaign seems to be gaining little traction, except among the far-right fans of Fox News and regular readers of The Weekly Standard and the National Review.

For now, the public, preoccupied with the dismal state of the economy, seems more relieved than worried by the planned withdrawal, as Kagan and other hawks have admitted.

Three out of four respondents in a Gallup poll taken late last month said they approved of Obama's decision, and a similar percentage told an ABC News/Washington Post survey early this month they either supported it "strongly" or "somewhat".

While all but one of the Republican presidential candidates denounced the decision immediately after its announcement, they have not chosen to make Iraq a major issue in their campaigns, even as they've taken extremely aggressive positions on Iran and its nuclear programme.

The hawks have also been subject to some pushback not only by the administration, which hopes to conclude a "Strategic Framework Agreement" with Maliki that would permit some dozens of military advisers to remain in Iraq when he visits the White House next month, but also by regional specialists.

Some of the latter believe that the withdrawal, as well as the planned departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014, may actually strengthen Washington's long-term position at Iran's expense.

"Once absent, America can no longer be the focus of opposition in both places," noted Vali Nasr, an international politics professor who has advised the administration, in a column for Bloomberg News published last week. "Instead, Iran may replace the U.S. as the target of popular anger, blamed for the failure of government to meet the people's needs."

Supporters of the 2003 U.S. intervention and the subsequent 2007 surge have also come out in support of Obama's decision.

The New York Times' most influential foreign policy columnist, Tom Friedman, for example, echoed Nasr last week, when he wrote that he was "certain that in recent years America's lingering troop presence in Iraq actually gave Iran greater influence in Baghdad" and that Washington had become "a lightening (sic) rod that absorbed a lot of Iraqis' frustrations with their government's underperformance, and the U.S. 'occupation'."

"(O)ur trying to force an agreement through the Iraqi parliament would have been self-destructive," wrote Brett McGurk, who served on the national security staffs of both George W. Bush and Obama, in the Post.

"That has everything to do with Iraqi pride, history and nationalism. Even the most anti-Iranian Iraqi officials refused to publicly back a residual U.S. force," he argued.

"Granting immunity is problematic because of Iraq's overall post-colonial experience, and, more acutely, given what took place at Abu Ghraib (prison) and other incidents where Iraqis may have been mistreated or killed by U.S. troops," according to Andrew Parailiti, director of the Washington office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Some commentators have noted the ironic nature of the complaints by neo-conservatives, who have long claimed to be champions of democratic governance, that Obama insisted that the Iraqi parliament – and not just al-Maliki and his cabinet – approve immunity for U.S. trainers as part of any deal to keep them in Iraq.

Others have cited another irony: the fact that, in the words of James Traub of foreignpolicy.com, "today's sabre-rattlers are, of course, the same folk who urged President George W. Bush to go to war…" in 2003.

"None of the hawks warned then that toppling Saddam could embolden Iran, and yet Iran has turned out to be the greatest beneficiary of that massively botched undertaking." For them to blame "Obama for a problem created by Bush…is a switcheroo of breathtaking proportions."

Indeed, perhaps the great irony is that the Iraqi banker-politician behind whom the neo-conservatives rallied support for the invasion praised Obama in an interview with Post columnist David Ignatius.

"We thank U.S. troops for liberating Iraq, and we say goodbye to them, and good luck," Ignatius quoted Ahmed Chalabi as telling him.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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