Six years ago today, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in an elaborately executed photo-op and proclaimed, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
At that time, 140 U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq; six years later, the number of 4,281 (with three more deaths reported today), and the toll of Iraqi fatalities is perhaps a hundred times higher or more.
Today’s anniversary is all the more troubling since President Obama, who came into office firmly promising to end the U.S. occupation, seems to still buy into the idea that there is an American "mission" to be accomplished. In his press conference Wednesday night, he said:
Part of the reason why I called for a gradual withdrawal as opposed to a precipitous one was precisely because more work needs to be done on the political side to further isolate whatever remnants of Al Qaida in Iraq still exists.
And I’m very confident that, with our commander on the ground, General Odierno, with Chris Hill, our new ambassador, having been approved and already getting his team in place, that they are going to be able to work effectively with the Maliki government to create the conditions for an ultimate transfer after the national elections.
But there’s some serious work to do on making sure that how they divvy up oil revenues is ultimately settled, what the provincial powers are and boundaries, the relationship between the Kurds and the central government, the relationship between the Shia and the Kurds. Are they incorporating effectively Sunnis, Sons of Iraq, into the structure of the armed forces in a way that’s equitable and just?
Those are all issues that have not been settled the way they need to be settled.
I have bad news for you, Mr. President: those issues are not going to be settled, because the Maliki government has no interest in settling them to the other factions’ liking. I’ve watched since 2005 as the Bush/Cheneyites — with more leverage over the fledgling Iraqi government, and fewer scruples — tried to browbeat the Jaafari regime, and then Maliki, into adopting the kind of reconciliation measures just described.
I predicted then that U.S. pressure would fail, and there’s even less chance of it succeeding now. For better or worse, Iraq’s Shiite leaders view power as a winner-take-all game, and they’re not going to take any chances by sharing. Which is why, by talking up "work to do" and "conditions for an ultimate transfer," Obama is painting himself into a dangerous corner.
As Attackerman wrote yesterday, "What was true for Bush is true for Obama: devising responsible approaches to Iraq require a firm handling of the facts involved, not wishful thinking." For all the talk of conditional engagement, the only way Obama’s policy in Iraq will differ from the previous administration will be if he says flatly that reconciliation or no reconciliation, the U.S. is leaving. Six years after the disastrous "Mission Accomplished" stunt, it’s time for Obama to make that clear.