- By Jeremy Scahill, February 28, 2009.
Obama's speech promising a full withdrawal from Iraq adopted the long-discredited narrative of the Bush administration.
Some anti-war analysts find hope in President Barack Obama's address at Camp Lejuene in North Carolina on Friday, in which he appeared to spell out a clear date for withdrawal from Iraq.
"I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011," Obama said in a speech that quickly generated headlines announcing that an end to the occupation is on the horizon. As far as rhetoric goes, Obama's statement seems very clear. But in reality, it is far more complicated.
Obama's plan, as his advisors have often said, is subject to "conditions on the ground," meaning it can be altered at any point between now and 2011. Underscoring this point, a spokesperson for New York Rep. John McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said on Friday that Obama "assured [McHugh] he will revisit the tempo of the withdrawal, or he will revisit the withdrawal plan if the situation on the ground dictates it. - The president assured him that there was a Plan B."
Despite Obama's declarations Friday and the celebrations they have sparked on the liberal blogosphere, the Pentagon certainly seems to believe its forces may well be in Iraq after 2011. NBC's Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszeswki reported on Friday that "military commanders, despite this Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that all U.S. forces would be out by the end of 2011, are already making plans for a significant number of American troops to remain in Iraq beyond that 2011 deadline, assuming that Status of Forces Agreement would be renegotiated. And one senior military commander told us that he expects large numbers of American troops to be in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years."
Some have suggested that such statements from the military are insubordination and contrary to Obama's orders, but they could also reflect discussions between the White House and the Pentagon to which the public is not privy.
Then there's the monstrous U.S. embassy unveiled last month in Baghdad, the largest of any nation anywhere in the history of the planet and itself resembling a military base. Maintaining this fortified city will require a sizable armed U.S. presence in Baghdad and will regularly place U.S. diplomats in armed convoys that put Iraqi civilian lives in jeopardy.
Whether this job is performed by State Department Diplomatic Security or mercenaries from the company formerly known as Blackwater, now rebranded as Xe, (or else a corporation more acceptable to the Obama administration), the U.S. will have a substantial paramilitary force regularly escorting U.S. VIPs around Iraq -- a proven recipe for civilian deaths and injuries. Obama's speech on Friday did not even address the question of military contractors -- a crucial omission given that their presence rivals that of U.S. troops by a ratio of over 1-to-1.
Finally, the Status of Forces Agreement, which supposedly lays out a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, contains a gaping loophole that leaves open the possibility of a continuation of the occupation and a sustained presence of U.S. forces well beyond 2011, "upon request by the government of Iraq." Article 27 of the SOFA allows the U.S. to undertake military action, "or any other measure," inside Iraq's borders "In the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq." Could this mean an election where the wrong candidate or party wins? What is the definition of a threat?
The Democrats' Response
Earlier in the week, when details of Obama's official Iraq plan began to emerge, expressions of surprise poured from the offices of the congressional Democratic leadership over his intention to keep a force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops in the country beyond 2010.
"When they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I anticipated," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was "particularly upset" according to the New York Times and did not understand "the justification." Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., exclaimed, "Fifty thousand is more than I would have thought."
The response from the Democratic power brokers was embarrassingly disingenuous. Obama said early on in his presidential campaign that he intended to keep behind a "residual force" of the scope he laid out. Those who have long protested this aspect of his plan were marginalized and ignored in both the corporate media and the Obama campaign.
The same Democratic leaders expressing their disappointment ignored the credible voices of dissent for years while supporting the occupation through votes and funding. That they would wait to express their dissent until long after it would actually have had an impact is one of the best examples of what has been so wrong with the Democrats' role from the beginning of President George W. Bush's declaration of war against the world and his 2003 invasion of Iraq.
If Pelosi, Reid, et al., really had a problem with a 50,000 troop residual force, they certainly had ample time to say so when Obama was running for president.
On Friday, however, these same Democrats welcomed the announcement that combat missions would be out by 2011. Reid praised Obama's plan, while cautioning that we "must keep in Iraq only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people." Following Obama's speech at Camp Lejeune, key Senate Republicans praised Obama's plan as well, while reminding everyone that it was an outgrowth of the Bush administration.
"It is encouraging to see the Obama administration embrace the plan of Gen. David Petraeus that began with the successful surge in 2007, and continues shifting combat responsibilities to our Iraqi allies," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Adopting the Bush Narrative
Beyond the headline-generating news, Obama's speech at Camp Lejeune delivered a number of lines -- wrapped in laudatory rhetoric -- that could have been delivered by Bush himself.
"I want to be very clear," Obama told the military audience. "We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein's regime -- and you got the job done." Perhaps it bears remembering that "removing Saddam" was justification two or three offered by the Bush administration after the WMD fraud was exposed.
"We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government," Obama went on, "and you got the job done." (The idea that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regime is either sovereign or a government is hotly debated in Iraq.) "And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life -- that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible."
As much as could be said about this, perhaps the best response was delivered on Friday by Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks, who knows the situation in Iraq about as well as any journalist.
"We won't know for 10 or 15 years whether we actually did something right, even in removing Saddam Hussein," he said on MSNBC. "We may very well end up with a strongman, stronger than Saddam, closer to Tehran and certainly will be anti-American. That's in some ways the best-case scenario if that country holds together."
Regardless of what happens down the line, the world knows the truth about the lies that both Democrats and Republicans promoted in support of Bush's war against Iraq. Rather than inspire hope among Iraqis, the U.S. occupation has devastated their country and opened Iraq's gates for unprecedented violence and instability in their country and the region.
Obama, the candidate, used to riff on these truths on the campaign trail. The contradiction between President Obama's speech at Camp Lejeune and his rhetoric before he was elected should serve as a warning to those who take his words at face value. But more important, combined with his plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan, Obama's adoption of key lies from Bush's Iraq narrative should be seen as a dangerous indicator of things to come.
Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.