Let’s Be Patient

President Obama in Iraq:

    This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months.

Three Friedman Units.
from Wikipedia:

    The term [Friedman Unit] is in reference to a May 16, 2006 article by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) detailing journalist Thomas Friedman’s repeated use of “the next six months” as the period in which, according to Friedman, “we’re going to find out…whether a decent outcome is possible” in the Iraq War.

President Obama also said:

    It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. (Applause.) They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty. (Applause.)
    And in order for them to do that, they have got to make political accommodations. They’re going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means. They are going to have to focus on providing government services that encourage confidence among their citizens.
    All those things they have to do. We can’t do it for them. But what we can do is make sure that we are a stalwart partner, that we are working alongside them, that we are committed to their success, that in terms of training their security forces, training their civilian forces in order to achieve a more effective government, they know that they have a steady partner with us.
    And so just as we thank you for what you’ve already accomplished, I want to say thank you because you will be critical in terms of us being able to make sure that Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, that it is a good neighbor and a good ally, and we can start bringing our folks home.

“We can start bringing our folks home.” When? Silly me, I thought that was going to happen right away. (Obama also said the Iraq war “is an extraordinary achievement,” but we’ll let that go, not without noting the million deaths and the four million displaced.)

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An officer home from Iraq: his thoughts

I enjoyed an extended chat with a jr. US Army officer, on furlough from Iraq, about the time that Phyllis Bennis here gave a stimulating guest comment that questioned the Obama Administration agenda in Iraq.
I too was sensing something awry when the WaPost Outlook section last Sunday had three separate neoconservatives (Feith, Pletka, & Scheunemann) praising “Obama’s Plan for Iraq,” presumably because it seemed to place more emphasis on “finishing the job” and equivocating on the withdrawal timetable.
On the other hand, I’ve often wondered how simply withdrawing US troops necessarily will “end the war,” especially with the multiple worm cans festering in northern Iraq. (That of course is not an argument in itself for staying, just a “grounded” check.) In any case, I am encouraged that the violence is down considerably, even as we debate the various explanations.
With such questions on my mind, I was eager to listen to this young officer current impressions. He’s been there less than half a year, ensconced in one of the large army bases near the Baghdad airport. I present here a few of his observations, without my own “spin.” For his sake, I am not going to mention his name or unit, save to say that his comments were “candid” and, as far as I could tell, unconcerned about command ramifications.
Biggest complaint: While he did frequently mention cold showers (which beats being electrocuted by one of the notorious KBR showers!), his primary gripe was about sheer, raw boredom. The army keeps him “busy.” As a young engineer-in-training, he puts in 13+ hour days , 6.5 days a week, but his duties seem largely dominated by bureaucratic “make work” the army notoriously can create to fill space. (For effect, he mentioned that his drudge work had included warehouse inventories at the massive Abu Ghraib complex.)

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Is Obama working to end the US war and occupation in Iraq?

The following is a guest op-ed contributed to JWN by Phyllis Bennis
President Obama announced “a new strategy to end the war in Iraq.” That sounds good – an indication that he is keeping to his campaign promises, responding to the powerful anti-war consensus in this country. But if this plan were actually a first step towards a complete end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it would be even better than good.
A real end to the war would mean this withdrawal was the first step towards a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Iraq and bringing them home, not redeploying them to another failing war in Afghanistan. It would mean pulling out all the 150,000+ U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries and contractors, closing all the U.S. military bases, and ending all U.S. efforts to control Iraqi oil.
And so far, that is not on Obama’s agenda.
The troop withdrawal now planned would leave behind as many as 50,000 U.S. troops. That’s an awful lot. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thinks that may be too much. She told Rachel Maddow “I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000, at the present …I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.”
Those left-over U.S. forces won’t include officially-designated “combat brigades.” But they will still be occupying Iraq. Doing what? Very likely, just what combat troops do – patrol and bomb and shoot like combat troops, even if they are not part of recognized combat brigades. Some of them might be “re-labeled” or “re-missioned” so combat actions are described as training or support. That would mean a retreat to the lies and deception that characterized this war during the Bush years – something President Obama promised to leave behind. It would also mean military resistance in Iraq would continue, leading to more Iraqi and U.S. casualties.
Last year’s U.S. agreement with Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of December 2011, and President Obama said he intends to remove all troops. But intentions are not commitments, and the agreement can too easily be changed. Retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote an internal report for the Pentagon last year, saying, “We should assume that the Iraqi government will eventually ask us to stay beyond 2011 with a residual force of trainers, counterterrorist capabilities, logistics, and air power. (My estimate – perhaps a force of 20,000 to 40,000 troops).”
And what if the reduction in ground troops is matched by an escalation of U.S. air attacks? That means more Iraqi civilians continuing to be killed by the U.S. military. We need to withdraw all air and naval forces too – something the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with Iraq requires, but we have yet to hear a commitment from the Obama administration.
Obama promised transparency in the contracting process, but he hasn’t yet promised to bring home all the mercenaries and contractors. That means even more windfalls for the oil companies and powerful contractors whose CEOs and stockholders have made billion dollar killings on Iraq contracts.
We should end all U.S. funding for the giant contractors– Dyncorp, Bechtel, Blackwater – that serve as out-sourced unaccountable components of the U.S. military. They were part of the torture scenes at Abu Ghraib. (Blackwater’s recent name change to “Xe” should not allow its role in killing Iraqi civilians to be forgotten.) Even as some troops may be withdrawn, we will need congressional hearings on the human rights violations and misuse of taxpayer funds by the war profiteers who run these companies. President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo prison shows his awareness of the severity of the crimes committed there. Ending the funding of the contractors who carried out so many of those crimes should be a logical next step.
As the Obama administration seeks new ways to cut military spending, closing the 50+ Iraqi bases, particularly the five mega-bases becomes an urgent necessity. And the giant embassy-on-steroids that the Bush administration built to house up to 5,000 U.S. diplomats and officials should be closed down as a relic of an illegal war launched to maintain control of the country, people and resources of Iraq.
We know there is no military solution in Iraq. Pulling out any troops from Iraq is a good thing. But Obama’s plan falls short of his most important promise regarding the Iraq War: bringing it quickly to its end.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and she contributed a chapter on Iraq policy in the just-released Mandate for Change: Policies and Leadership for 2009 and Beyond. To sign up to receive her talking points and articles, go to http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/357/t/1011/signUp.jsp?key=95 and choose “New Internationalism Project.”

Divide and Conquer

Success in foreign affairs, where domination is the goal, is often accomplished withn a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Conn Hallinan, 2004:

    It was “divide and conquer” that made it possible for an insignificant island in the north of Europe to rule the world. Division and chaos, tribal, religious and ethnic hatred, were the secret to empire. Guns and artillery were always in the background in case things went awry, but in fact, it rarely came to that.
    The parallels between Israel and Ireland are almost eerie, unless one remembers that the latter was the laboratory for British colonialism. As in Ulster, Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories have special privileges that divide them from Palestinians (and other Israelis as well). As in Ireland, Israeli settlers rely on the military to protect them from the “natives.” And as in Northern Ireland, there are political organizations, like the National Religious Party and the Moledet Party, which whip up sectarian hatred, and keep the population divided. The latter two parties both advocate the forcible transfer of all Arabs — Palestinians and Israelis alike — to Jordan and Egypt.

And in Iraq, there was the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006.

    The world-famed Golden Mosque, a Shiite religious shrine located in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed Feb. 22. The mosque’s golden dome was blown off in the explosion, which touched off a round of Sunni-Shiite discord across the country.

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Deep US blind spot on international legality

Why is the fact that the U.S. government is contractually obligated to withdraw all its troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011 so frequently ignored in US public discussions?
Last November, duly authorized representatives of the US government– Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker– signed the text of a “Status of Forces Agreement/ Withdrawal Agreement” with the government of Iraq.
When a government changes or is replaced, existing international agreements remain in place unless there is a new, explicit agreement between the parties to rescind or revise them. It couldn’t be otherwise in an orderly international system.
A good part of the problem in the disrespectful and border-line illegal way that Americans have been treating last November’s SOFA/WA stems from Pres. Obama himself. He remains fixated on arguing for the details of the plan on which he ran for office: the plan for a substantial drawdown of US force levels “within 16 months” but the retention of a significant US force in Iraq for an undefined period thereafter.
Understandable and in many ways admirable that a democratically elected leader would try to hold fast to what he had promised during the election campaign.
However, what Obama continues to propose regarding Iraq has already been superseded in international law by the decision the outgoing Bush administration made– on Thanksgiving Day, no less– to commit to the terms of the SOFA/WA.
(I have been interested to note that, as part of its purging of the White House web site, the incoming Obama administration removed from the site the authoritative PDF version of the signed SOFA/WA that had been there up until the Inauguration– and that I had linked to in this Nov. 28th JWN post. Now, if you want to find a copy of the agreement’s final text, as far as I can see you’ll have to go to a non-governmental site this one– PDF, hosted by the NYT. One strong advantage of the earlier White House PDF was that it had the actual signatures on it. It must still exist somewhere in the bowels of the federal government’s archives?)
MY question is: Why is the existence of the November SOFA/WA agreement not much more of an issue than it now seems to be, in the discussions in both Congress and among the US commentatoriat at large?
Why does at seem as if so many members of the US political elite just want to ignore the agreement?
Case in point, today: This lengthy piece by Tom Ricks in Sunday’s Washington Post. Ricks’s main argument is that the US military may well have to end up staying (and fighting) in Iraq for many years into the future. He writes– without expressing any demurral from the views expressed– that:

    The quiet consensus emerging among many who have served in Iraq is that U.S. soldiers will probably be engaged in combat there until at least 2015 — which would put us at about the midpoint of the conflict now.

The piece contains sound-bite quotes from a significant number of US and western military and “expert” sources. I don’t know if the people Ricks quoted– who include our friend Reidar Visser– made any mention of the constraints of the SOFA/WA in their conversations with Ricks. But here’s the thing: Nowhere in the piece at all does Ricks either make in his own name, or attribute to any of his sources, any mention of the SOFA/WA.
It’s as though it doesn’t exist. It’s been simply air-brushed out of (this US-centric version of) history.
The reason I’m concerned about this is that I have a lot of respect for the writing and reporting that Ricks has done on the US war in Iraq. So if even someone of his caliber acts as though the SOFA/WA is irrelevant, we are in deep trouble.