Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The harder part of the Iraq War: getting out

I was on a conference call Wednesday morning (today PDT) moderated by Charles Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives discussing the report of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq. The conference included Congressmen Jim McGovern (D-MA) and John Tierney (D-MA) and other involved in the Task Force. The Executive Summary and the full report are available online.

As McGovern (D-MA) explained, there has been inadequate planning for an actual withdrawal from Iraq, both on the part of the administration and of Congress. He says that Congress can't get estimates from the Pentagon on what withdrawal would take. He noted that war supporters tend to respond to the mention of withdrawal by just yelling "bloodbath!" He characterized his approach as one of seeking to withdraw from Iraq "quickly, carefully and generously".

I thought during this call about the projection-style arguments that war fans make, saying that the war critics "never talk about" the bad things that would happen if the US withdraws. This call and the Task Force report was mainly devoted to dealing in a practical way with the risks involved with withdrawal. As Marc Lynch of George Washington University put it during the call, there are real risks if we start to withdraw and real risks if we stay. It would be far more accurate to say that the administration and other war supporters like to pretend that there are risks only in withdrawing, not in staying.

McGovern supports a short-term renewal of UN mandate for a brief period. That would be a constructive alternative to the current attempt by the Cheney-Bush administration to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement, the latter of which he thinks could lead to a "US commitment to endless war".

In response to a question from me, Caleb Rossiter, Counselor to Congressman William Delahunt (D-MA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, stressed that the "status of forces" agreement being negotiated by the Bush administration is not like most "status of forces" agreements, which deal with the legal status of US forces in another country.

He characterized the agreement under negotiation as a status-of-forces agreement "on steroids". What he meant was that the agreement Bush is trying to conclude involves approval of US troops engaging in combat, which would require Congressional approval to be legally valid.

Rossiter emphasized that although Executive agreements and even agreements approved by Congress can be ended, that it would be a "diplomatic disaster" for the US to make such an agreement and then renege on it shortly afterward. For that reason, he said that it's important that any such agreement not be concluded until the next President, who will have to implement the agreement is elected.

Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project noted that Barack Obama recently telephoned the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, and told him that if Bush concludes an agreement like the one Rossiter called a status-of-force agreement-on-steroids, that his administration could not be bound by it. (See Obama Speaks With Iraqi Foreign Minister ABC News Online (n.d) and Mr. Zebari's Message Washington Post editorial 06/18/08.)

This is a good sign that Obama is maneuvering to avoid being locked in by the outgoing Bush administration via such an agreement. This also is a good sign to me that Obama is willing to take some political risks for his promise to withdraw (most) American troops from Iraq. This could open him up to criticism from the McCain camp for interfering with official diplomacy. Which to an certain extent, it is, though it's fully justifiable in this case. It's much better than the secret diplomacy practiced, say, by the Nixon campaign in 1968 to stall the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. (I would also add the dealings of the Reagan administration with Iran over the hostages in 1980, though that is not so clearly documented or so widely accepted as Nixon's obstruction of the peace talks in 1968.)

Congressman Tierney used the term "responsible redeployment". He didn't put it quite this way but one of favorite quotes the last few years was from a column written by Congressman McGovern and former Sen. George McGovern (no relation), "Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." (Withdraw from Iraq Boston Globe 06/06/05) When they wrote that column, we had been in Iraq for not quite two-and-a-half years. If Obama gets elected - or, entering complete fantasy land for a moment, if McCain gets elected and suddenly reverses himself and commits to quick withdrawal - getting out will be a very complicated process, literally more complicated than getting in. Though the prospects for a beneficial result are far greater.

Tierney used the common Democratic argument that the Iraq War has diverted troops and other resources from the Afghanistan War and Pakistan, where American interests are more clearly at stake. I noticed, though, that he at least qualified his commitment to placing more emphasis On Afghanistan and Pakistan by saying that some troops from Iraq should be redeployed there, specifically saying not all of them or even a majority of them. And he said they should be used specifically for mentoring and training Afghan troops and police.

In response to a question from David Isenberg of the Asia Times, there was a discussion about the necessity to engage Iraq's neighbors diplomatically to stabilize the situation as the US withdraws, including Iran and Syria.

McGovern stressed that part of the goal is to "elevate the discussion in Congress" about what countries need to be involved to attempt to avoid worst-case scenarios and give hope to the Iraqi people. An essential element of the withdrawal is the kind of active diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommended.

Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress noted that we need less "photo-op diplomacy" and more serious engagement and follow-up.

Toensing stressed that engaging the neighbors in the context of withdrawal would be a different context than engagement in the context of indefinite American presence. He thinks the negotiations should be under the UN aegis, not just unilateral US diplomacy.

As Knight and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives commented, on the concept of a role for a UN peacekeeping force for an interim period, it would have to be in the context of some kind of a much more unified Iraqi government and a much more meaningful reconciliation among the contending Iraqi parties. A UN peacekeeping force is only feasible if there is widespread agreement among contending parties that an intermediary is needed, a very different situation than what we now have in Iraq.

Toensing talked about normalizing relations with Iran, saying it would be an end-point of wide-ranging negotiations with Iran over various issues and would be a component of a grand bargain with Iran over the range of issues, not least of which are Iran's nuclear program and support for regional terrorism.

I enjoyed the response to a question from Gary Brecher, "The War Nerd", about whether withdrawal would open up the Democrats to being discredited by attacks for Rush Limbaugh and the Republicans. McGovern responded, "I don't give a damn what Rush Limbaugh says". And said we shouldn't exaggerate Limbaugh's influence. Interestingly, McGovern said that his House colleagues, even the war supporters, are looking for a way out of Iraq.

Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress talked a bit about the mechanics of negotiating internal reconciliation agreements. It would require American engagement with the various parties but would have to be done with careful consideration for the Iraqi political process, including the provincial elections this year and the national election next year. He emphasized that the next administration would need to pursue this early.

Toensing said that the administration understanding's of national reconciliation, as well as that of the Maliki government, involved everyone going along with what the Maliki government wants. (Kind of like the Republicans' and our Big Pundits' idea of "bipartisanship".) The Task Force concept is for a much more wide-reaching reconciliation with all significant parties, excepting the "nihilistic" terrorist groups.

McGovern said it would be great if that kind of discussion that occurred on the call could happen on the House of Representatives. He said the antiwar movement has an obligation to discuss these issues in a way that starts to give people more specific ideas about the practical feasibility of withdrawal.

Toensing mentioned at the end that US Labor Against the War has brought three groups of Iraqi trade unionists to the US as a way of bringing Iraqi voices more to the attention of the American people.

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