Iraq/Afghanistan: A Promise Kept, a Promise Deferred

The Iraq war is not over. This is not a left-wing critique. The consensus of the mainstream U.S. print media is that the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain there have been rebranded from "combat" brigades to "advise-and-assist" brigades.
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President Obama wants credit for keeping his promise to end the war in Iraq. Some credit is due: the President reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, as required by the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. But only partial credit is due, because the war-ending task is very far from complete.

The Iraq war is not over. This is not a left-wing critique. The consensus account of mainstream U.S. print media is that the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain have been rebranded from "combat" brigades to "advise-and-assist" brigades. The unfailingly pro-war Washington Post editorial board wrote yesterday:

For one thing, combat won't really end on Sept. 1. Fifty thousand U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, and their duties will include counterterrorism work as well as continuing to train and assist Iraqi forces....

Moreover, the United States government is still "meddling" in Iraq's internal political affairs, to use the term our media uses when countries we don't like do it. U.S. officials are still trying to determine who will be in the Iraqi government and who should not. This is a key factor in the current political impasse in Baghdad, a fact which is generally omitted in mainstream press accounts that bemoan the failure of Iraqi politicians to form a government. It's true that there is a failure on the part of Iraqi politicians, but they have enablers in their failure: the outside powers, including the U.S., Iran, and other countries, which are lobbying furiously for a government to their liking, and working to block any government that they don't like. The impasse between the Iraqi politicians is also an impasse between the outside powers, fighting a proxy political war for influence in Iraq.

This week, Antony Blinken, Vice-President Biden's national security adviser, told the New York Times that Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law coalition and Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition should be part of "the foundation of the next government," along with the Kurdish alliance. But the Sadrists, according to Blinken, should not be included, because

the United States did not see them as useful members of a new governing coalition - or, as he put it, the Iraqi government should include "coalitions that are interested in building a long-term partnership with the United States."

In his speech last night, President Obama said:

Tonight, I encourage Iraq's leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people.

Blinken's more detailed statement suggests that when President Obama said "inclusive," he meant "including State of Law, Iraqiya, and the Kurds, but not the Sadrists."

A major objective of the Bush Administration's war -- which, as a Senator, Joe Biden supported -- was to remove Saddam Hussein's government and replace it with a pro-U.S. government. The Obama Administration, according to the statement of Biden's aide, is still pursuing the second half of this objective. But the pursuit of this objective continues the war, not only because it was a key objective of the war, but also because it is a politically divisive objective among Iraqis; many Iraqis don't want to have a "pro-U.S." government, and some of them are prepared to use violence to prevent that from happening.

If the fact that some Iraqis are prepared to use violence to prevent their country from having a "pro-U.S." government seems extreme to you, reflect for a moment on how extreme it was for the United States to invade Iraq, defying the United Nations Charter and world opinion and unleashing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, in order to establish a "pro-U.S." government in Iraq.

President Obama was right to call for an Iraqi government that is "an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people." But as of this week, this is not yet actually U.S. policy. If the Iraqi government is to be representative and accountable to the Iraqi people, people who do not want to have a "pro-U.S." government cannot be walled out: continuing to try to exclude them from power is a recipe for continued violence.

Some may see it as an immutable fact of life on Earth that the U.S. must try to control the governments of the broader Middle East, even if the attempt to do so produces terrible violence.

But the example of Lebanon proves that it is not so. Today the major political factions in Lebanon -- which have a long history of bitter civil war -- live within the confines of a national political accord in which they share power, an accord that guarantees that the government will be neither "pro-U.S." nor "anti-U.S." All the major outside powers which back the major factions have signed off on this agreement, explicitly or implicitly, including the U.S. (during the Bush Administration!), Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

For the foreseeable future, if Iraq will have peace, that is what it will almost surely look like: a government that is neither pro-U.S. nor anti-U.S., but in which pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. factions share power. So for the U.S. to accept peace in Iraq requires that it accept for Iraq what it has already accepted for Lebanon.

And this brings us back to the other thing that Senator Obama promised. He said he didn't just want to end the war: he wanted to end the mindset that leads to war.

The belief that we can and must control other people's governments, that we can and must decide who will participate in power in other people's countries, is a key component of the mindset that leads to war. If an effective consensus had not developed in Washington that the United States could and should decide who would govern Iraq, the war would never have taken place.

People who say that the war succeeded because Saddam Hussein was removed from power are perpetuating the mindset that leads to war. To say that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and the millions displaced, among the many human tragedies produced by the war, are justified by Saddam Hussein's removal from power is not simply wrong; more fundamentally, it's not our call. Only the people who live in a country are morally qualified to make this kind of trade-off about what sacrifices they think are justified to change (or keep) their form of government, given the likelihood that they will pay 99% of the sacrifice. It's obvious that many Iraqis, especially among the millions who lost family members, would not have chosen to make this trade-off.

And this question could not be more relevant today, because we are still pursuing a policy in Afghanistan that is based on the same premise: the United States government can and must determine who will participate in power in Afghanistan.

About Afghanistan, the President said in his speech last night,

As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we can't do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That's why we're training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan's problems. And next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: This transition will begin -- because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's.

It's a good thing that President Obama re-affirmed the beginning of drawdown next summer; it's a good thing that he affirmed U.S. support for a political resolution to Afghanistan's problems.

But as with Iraq, there are key differences between the policy being articulated by the President in his speech to the American people and the actual policy being implemented by U.S. officials. The U.S. has done little to promote a political resolution. The Pentagon is building long-term U.S. military bases in Afghanistan -- something Congress could do something about. As it was in Iraq, U.S. policy in Afghanistan is still premised on trying to exclude from power people who are opposed to a long-term U.S. military presence. The majority of Americans -- and the majority of House Democrats -- want a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan -- not just the beginning, but also the endpoint. But the White House still refuses to accept, in the case of Afghanistan, that which it promoted in the case of Iraq: a timetable for full U.S. military withdrawal.

So how much credit the President should get for keeping his promise is very much an open question. He is drawing down from Iraq, and for that he deserves credit. But he has done little to end the mindset that leads to war, and in response to that, he needs continued pressure. On October 2, people from across the United States will go to Washington as part of the peace contingent of "One Nation Working Together" to demand that the wars end and that the troops come home: everyone who is able should make an effort to be there -- or to help someone else to go.