Responding to President Obama’s announcement of full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, Fred and Kim Kagan, two of the leading analysts behind the 2007-8 U.S. troop surge, write, "Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq."
The American withdrawal, which comes after the administration’s failure to secure a new agreement that would have allowed troops to remain in Iraq, won’t be good for ordinary Iraqis or for the region. But it will unquestionably benefit Iran.
President Obama’s February 2009 speech at Camp Lejeune accurately defined the U.S. goal for Iraq as "an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant." He then outlined how the U.S. would achieve that goal by working "to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists."
Despite recent administration claims to the contrary, Iraq today meets none of those conditions. Its sovereignty is hollow because of the continued activities of Iranian-backed militias in its territory. Its stability is fragile, since the fundamental disputes among ethnic and sectarian groups remain unresolved. And it is not in any way self-reliant. The Iraqi military cannot protect its borders, its airspace or its territorial waters without foreign assistance.
What the Kagans seem to be describing here is a scenario in which the surge didn’t really achieve its goals. And this is, in fact, the case. As Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, and Peter Juul noted in a September 2008 Center for American Progress report, while the surge did facilitate a dramatic reduction in violence, this was "purchased through a number of choices that have worked against achieving meaningful political reconciliation. The reductions in violence in 2007 and 2008 have, in fact, made true political accommodation in Iraq more elusive, contrary to the central theory of the surge."
But the Kagans can’t possibly recognize this, as that would be undermining their signal achievement, so they have to spin a tale in which everything was going basically fine until President Obama came along and ruined it by irresponsibly adhering to a withdrawal agreement that President Bush signed (which Fred Kagan hailed as a "great accomplishment" at the time).
As for the idea that the U.S. withdrawal will "unquestionably benefit Iran," newsflash: The Iraq war unquestionably benefited Iran. As an Iraqi friend put it to me at a conference in 2008, “America has baked Iraq like a cake, and given it to Iran to eat.”
As the New York Times reported earlier this month, Iran’s influence in Iraq — which was always primarily political, not military — has actually declined over the past two years (as with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the U.S. has benefited from our adversaries’ ability to alienate their own allies), but it’s worth noting that Iran’s influence was at its height when there were over 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Does anyone seriously imagine that a few thousand extra U.S. troops would make the difference here?
It must be pointed out how deeply humorous it is to see the Kagans belatedly sounding the alarm like this over Iran’s influence in Iraq. In the past, they’ve tended to downplay or selectively represent that influence in a way that buttressed their preferred narrative of the war’s progress, something Brian Katulis and I pointed out back in April 2008:
One of the most skewed analyses of the recent intra-Shiite clashes in Iraq came from two architects of the Bush administration’s 2007 surge, Fred and Kimberly Kagan. Writing in the Weekly Standard, the Kagans described last month’s battle in Basra as a security operation launched by "the legitimate Government of Iraq and its legally constituted security forces [against] illegal, foreign-backed, insurgent and criminal militias serving leaders who openly call for the defeat and humiliation of the United States and its allies in Iraq and throughout the region."
These depictions ignore an inconvenient truth: The leaders in Iraq’s current government are closely aligned with Tehran and represent some of Iran’s closest allies in Iraq. This is perhaps best illustrated by the warm welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received in his visit to Iraq last month, which punctures the myth that the current battle is between a unified Iraqi government and fringe groups receiving support from Iran. [...]
Over the past five years, Iran has hedged its bets, maintaining ties and offering support to all of the major Shiite factions in Iraq, including Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with the Iraqi army and the Badr Corps last month. But Americans should be clear about where Iran’s closest allies are in Iraq. They are at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.
Having now recognized this, the Kagans answer is the same as always: The U.S. must stay and stay in Iraq. If not, the U.S. will have failed. But, as Conor Friedersford aptly put it, "If the war you advocate requires for its success the indefinite deployment of U.S. troops, you’ve advocated a failed war."
As my colleagues and I noted in our May 2010 memo, The Iraq War Ledger, in terms of its strategic, economic, and human costs, the intervention in Iraq has been a disaster for the United States. We’ll be grappling with its consequences, of which Iranian empowerment is only one, for decades. It’s transparently dishonest for the war’s boosters to attempt to lay blame for this at the door of the Obama administration.