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Gareth Porter is an historian and investigative journalist and US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Porter is author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.
Porter talks with Real News Network’s Paul Jay with a dissection of Obama’s Iraq ‘withdrawal’ smoke and mirrors kabuki.
Real News Network – August 5, 2010
Obama backtracks on commitment to withdraw combat troops from Iraq
Transcript below the fold
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Atlanta on Monday, August 2, President Obama spoke about his plans to get American troops out of Iraq. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And next month we will change our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about his take on President Obama’s plans is Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative journalist and a historian, and written extensively on Iraq. He writes for IPS, and he’s a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So what’s wrong with that? President Obama said he’s going to get out, and he says again now he’s going to get out.
PORTER: Well, there are two problems. One is that, first of all, he had promised the American people a year and a half ago, 18 months ago, that he was going to withdraw all US combat brigades from Iraq by this date, that is, the end of August of this year. He didn’t say anything at all about that in his speech on Monday.
JAY: Now, was it the actual full withdrawal by the end of August, or by the end of 20-I mean of combat troops.
PORTER: He didn’t say a full withdrawal of troops; he said full withdrawal of combat troops, of combat brigades.
JAY: By the end of August 2010.
PORTER: At the end of August.
JAY: Okay. Let’s take a look at that clip.
OBAMA: I’ve chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months. So let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
JAY: So what’s the difference between what he said then and what he just said last week?
PORTER: Well, first of all, he’s not addressing the question of whether there are combat brigades or combat troops there now, and he’s admitted-essentially, he’s implicitly admitting that in fact he is not withdrawing combat brigades at all, that in fact what we have remaining is combat brigades, but that the combat mission itself has changed, is now ended, and that now the mission is being changed to advising, assisting the Iraqi forces. Now the problem with that is-again, that the way in which he defines a combat mission ending is very malleable. It’s politically manipulable. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to stop fighting. What I was told by a person who said this could be attributed to a senior administration official is that most of the fighting that will be done by US troops now, after August 31, it’ll be defensive military action. He didn’t say all of it would be defensive; he said that it would be mostly defensive.
JAY: And “defensive” can mean anything, ’cause if you’re out in the streets and someone attacks you, now you’re defensive.
PORTER: That’s right. They can still-
JAY: But not just mean attacking them in their bases.
PORTER: -they can still go out on patrols, knowing that going on patrols will be provoking a likely response if they’re going to a place where they know insurgents are located. So that distinction, you’re right, it’s not a very hard and fast distinction. But what he also said was something that people are not being told by the news media, much less by the administration itself, and that is that should the Iraqi government decide that it wants the United States to join in an offensive campaign, for example, against some insurgents, that the United States is going to be sympathetic to that request. So really it’s a matter of degree here. That’s all it is.
JAY: So they’re putting a new label on the troops. They still have all the same combat capacity. We’re just redefining this as not a combat mission. But they can still fight.
PORTER: Essentially they relabeled-.
JAY: What about the actual troop levels, though? Are they going to-I mean, is there not-he seems to have been committed to lowering, at the very least, the number of actual troops that are there.
PORTER: There are now roughly 70,000 troops-at least there were, at the end of last month, the beginning of this month, around 70,000 troops. They’re talking about reducing that to 50,000 by the end of this month. So it’s a significant last one-month reduction in troops [inaudible]
JAY: And weren’t they also committed to having all troops out, and not just combat, by, what is it, the end of 2011?
PORTER: They are in fact committed not just by a policy, but by the US-Iraq withdrawal agreement, which was signed in November 2008, to getting all US troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That’s now a treaty commitment, or at least a formal international commitment, if not a treaty.
JAY: Of course, unless Maliki, their guy, happens to say, well, you can stay longer.
PORTER: Well, that’s right. And of course we know that US military leaders have been saying, since even before that treaty or that agreement was signed in November 2008, they wanted to keep US troops there long, long beyond, way beyond 2011. We know that even after Obama was elected, the month of the signature of this agreement, November 2008, that General Odierno, the commander of US troops in Iraq, told Tom Ricks of the The Washington Post, when he was asked what kind of US military presence do you foresee in 2014-2015 (that’s four years after the supposed event of US military presence under the agreement), his answer was: I foresee, and what I would like to see, is 30,000, 35,000 US troops remaining, and that they would still be on combat mission.
JAY: Now, that may be what they want, but what the Iraqis want is something else. The Iraqi parliament more or less want-maybe a majority of the parliament wanted the US troops out yesterday. When you talk to most Iraqis, they want the US troops out yesterday.
PORTER: Absolutely. There’s no ambiguity about that.
JAY: They may not have a lot of choice, unless they want to face another full-scale insurrection again.
PORTER: There’s no ambiguity about it: public opinion in Iraq overwhelmingly in favor of complete exodus of US troops; the parliament absolutely committed to all US troops out by the end of 2011, if not before. So that’s clear. But what the US military clearly is hoping for is to use the bargaining position, bargaining power the United States has with al-Maliki, which is that he needs us to provide, you know, more weapons, particularly air force. He wants more air power from the United States. He’s already bought some air assets from the United States. He needs spare parts from the United States. And he needs his training for what he’s already gotten and what he hopes to get. So the US could use that bargaining position to try to get him to up the ante, to include not just a few trainers, not just continued spare parts and new weapons systems, but also some small, at least, combat contingent. I think that’s what they’re hoping is going to happen, that it’ll be done quietly enough so that, you know, the parliament will not be aware of it, or they’ll regard it as too small to care about, and that somehow we can have some sort of continued military presence, continued combat presence, even, after 2011. I have no doubt that they’re still hoping for that. They have not ruled it out. And if you look at the language that Obama himself used in his address on Monday, he did not say that all US troops are definitely coming out at the end of 2011; he said they are scheduled to come out at the end of 2011. That language is not chosen without a purpose.
JAY: So in terms of their long-term objectives in Iraq, then, I mean, number one, they have to make sure before they get out that there’s some kind of government there that’s going to remain in their sphere of influence. And even the al-Maliki government is very friendly with Iran, which is supposed to be the main bogeyman on the block. On the other hand, they’re stuck, in the sense that they can’t face another full-scale uprising against them. And if they-there’s a point here where they could be facing a united Sunni-Shiite resistance against them if they stay longer, especially past 2011. So how do they-what do they do here?
PORTER: I think that this represents a genuine, fundamental dilemma for the US military, because their absolute sort of intuitional instinct as military leaders is they want to stay with as many troops for as long as possible wherever they can, particularly when it’s an ambiguous situation, when they haven’t been able to declare complete victory and withdraw with drums and, you know, bugles blaring, which is what, of course, they would like ideally. But they want very badly to have a continued military presence. But at the same time, just as you’ve said, they face two problems. One, that government is-it’s not a pro-American government; it’s not a client government of the United States. That was revealed in 2008 when that government forced the United States to sign an agreement they did not want to sign, by any means, and further information or further evidence showing without any question that the Iranians have far more influence over that government than the United States does, in many, many ways.
JAY: So, the tactic seems to be delay getting out and see what happens.
PORTER: Exactly. I mean, they have no idea what they’re going to face a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, and yet they prefer to continue to press as much as possible, to use all the influence they can to try to keep as many troops as they can there [inaudible]
JAY: So can President Obama sell this to the American people? He made a promise to get out within a certain time period. So does the rebranding work? ‘Cause the American media seems to be buying it.
PORTER: Well, you know, I don’t know what Obama is thinking about this. He has not tipped his hand, except insofar as it’s keeping open that option. Presumably, he would only follow that option if he can say that it is in the context of being requested by the Iraqi government, and that this is an exceptional circumstance, and that we are keeping the peace. And could he manipulate the American public opinion insofar as it’s required to support that? Probably he can.
JAY: Well, given that he doesn’t have to worry about being attacked-on this issue, at least-by the Republicans, because the more war the better, it seems, for them. Thanks very much for joining us.
PORTER: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.