Yesterday, Booman asked why the Obama administration chose to announce the withdrawal of the last US forces from Iraq on a Friday, a slow news day traditionally reserved by both Obama and Bush before him for burying bad news. The answer is fairly simple: for a lot of the People Who Matter that run America’s perma-war culture, fulfilling a commitment to leave Iraq is
bad news:

This year, American military officials had said they wanted a “residual” force of as many as tens of thousands of American troops to remain in Iraq past 2011 as an insurance policy against any violence. Those numbers were scaled back, but the expectation was that at least about 3,000 to 5,000 American troops would remain.

At the end of the Bush administration, when the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, was negotiated, setting 2011 as the end of the United States’ military role, officials had said the deadline was set for political reasons, to put a symbolic end to the occupation and establish Iraq’s sovereignty. But there was an understanding, a senior official here said, that a sizable American force would stay in Iraq beyond that date.

Over the last year, in late-night meetings at the fortified compound of the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and in videoconferences between Baghdad and Washington, American and Iraqi negotiators had struggled to reach an agreement. All the while, both Mr. Obama and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, gave the world a wink and nod, always saying that Iraq was ready to stand on its own but never fully closing the door on the possibility of American troops’ staying on.

Thing is, those negotiators – up to and including Obama – have given every indication that honoring the US commitment to leave at the end of the year was not their preferred position:

This month, American officials pressed the Iraqi leadership to meet again at President Talabani’s compound to discuss the issue. This time the Americans asked them to take a stand on the question of immunity for troops, hoping to remove what had always been the most difficult hurdle. But they misread Iraqi politics and the Iraqi public. Still burdened by the traumas of this and previous wars, and having watched the revolutions sweeping their region, the Iraqis were unwilling to accept anything that infringed on their sovereignty.

Translation: it was the Iraqis, not the Obama administration, that were unwilling to cut a deal to keep US troops on. Whether this was an intentional outcome Obama desired depends on whether you believe the insistence on immunity for US troops – an utter nonstarter in Iraqi politics for the last several years – was an intentional poison pill in the negotiations, inserted by the White House to give political cover to the implementation of the original 2011 deadline, or a sincere request that is a standard demand for US troops operating on foreign soil. Or both.

And then there’s this, which sounds a whole lot like what Obama just said he was ending, but also a whole lot like the US military relationship with scores of other allies:

“We’re prepared to meet their training needs, we’re prepared to engage in exercises with them, we’re prepared to provide guidance and training with regard to their pilots, we’re prepared to continue to develop an ongoing relationship with them in the future,” Mr. Panetta told reporters on his plane on Friday.

Thing is, while it’s a nifty pivot to take credit for ending a US military presence you’ve just spent the last two years trying to extend, it’s hard to accrue too much public credit for an outcome that was a defeat for your public negotiating position. And on the reverse side, only people who are either utterly divorced from political reality or running for the Republican nomination for president, or both, are going to publicly chastize the commander-in-chief for ending a war that no longer has any public support at all (and say, wasn’t this war supposed to be over last year?). But behind the scenes – as evidenced by the anonymous military sources in this morning’s NYT article linked above – there’s plenty of blowback. Wanting the US to stay in Iraq is very much a minority opinion, but it’s a very, very powerful minority that’s committed, or has made, a lot of money in Iraq.

That’s why Obama announced on a Friday that he’d honor Bush’s SOFA agreement. And that’s why he won’t reap much political benefit for ending the war – either among peaceniks (who also see the “temporary” surge in a longer-running war in Afghanistan still with troop levels well above 2008 levels) or among the general public.

The only way to understand this as an intentional, desired outcome is with a wink and a nod. The question is, which winks and nods do you believe – the “we’re really going to stay” ones Obama and Maliki were giving last week, or the “we never meant to stay” ones today?

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