Eighty percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders said the State Department would not be ready to assume control of the mission in Iraq with only a small number of U.S. troops remaining in the country. Separately, the pool of national security and foreign policy experts were split down the middle over whether the Obama administration took sufficient action against Iran for its alleged role in a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States and bomb embassies in Washington.
Just before President Obama’s recent announcement that virtually all of the remaining 43,000 troops would be pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year, the Insiders said State would be ill-equipped to lead the transition with the U.S. military presence there limited to hundreds of troops guarding the American embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in Erbil and Basra. “Basic security continues to be a concern in Iraq for the local population, as well as for U.S. government agencies charged with providing training and technical assistance in the political, economic, educational, and social arenas," one Insider said.
The White House had until recently been trying to persuade the Iraqis to allow 2,000 to 3,000 troops to stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline—already far less than the 10,000 to 15,000 recommended by top American commanders in Iraq. “State is prepared to continue conducting diplomacy in Iraq, but diplomats are no substitute for military trainers and advisers,” one Insider said.
Another Insider said that American civilian officials, who will primarily be guarded by thousands of private security contractors, “will be prisoners on the ridiculously large but poorly constructed compound and will be unable to leave the grounds without a security package so large and costly that being out of the embassy will be the exception rather than the rule."
Even the 20 percent who said State would be able to lead the mission without troops in the country acknowledged the challenges to come—and called for more action by Congress and the administration to protect civilian personnel. “The President needs to assign the armed forces the mission of protecting our diplomats in conflict zones. This is an urgent need,” one Insider said. “We must keep State from spending its scarce funds on funding security contractors.”
Another called on Congress to authorize an additional 2,500 or so private security contractors, and for the Defense Department to turn over its helicopters, ground vehicles, and other assets to the State Department for free. “It would not serve U.S. interests to abandon… reconstruction in Iraq. People need to get real about the contributions they make to U.S. interests in risky places,” the Insider said.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration ramped up its sanctions against Iran after the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador and bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies came to light, penalizing individuals connected to Iran's elite Quds force and Tehran's second-largest airline, which it claimed was secretly ferrying weapons and operatives. Fifty-two percent of Insiders said the administration's response was sufficient—most of them saying the details of the plot were either too premature or sketchy to warrant tougher action.
"Regardless of the domestic political pressure," one Insider said, "we need to know more than we do now before responding more strongly." Another said there were "not many serviceable options to what is still an episode of questionable credibility."
Some said the administration's response was overkill given what they called the "uncertainties" about this plot. "It was too much," one said. Another called it "a phony propaganda ploy."
The other 48 percent said they would have preferred a much stronger response by the administration. With an already strong U.S. sanctions menu against Iran, the thwarted plot may have provided an opening for the administration to further increase the diplomatic and financial pressure against Iran.
"This was an opportunity to 'go for the max' and then, negotiate with the other Security Council members," one Insider said. "By starting with less, the administration almost guaranteed that the final result will be watered down even further."
1. In the absence of all but a small number of U.S. troops attached to the embassy, is the State Department ready to assume control of the mission in Iraq?
- No 80%
- Yes 20%
“The State Department's negligence in planning for the next stage in Iraq is dwarfed only by the Defense Department's planning for the first eight years there."
“It's as if they woke up and found out to their surprise that it's already 2011.”
"But I hope I'm wrong!"
“The State Department does not have the operational culture required to undertake such a mission. Ten plus years after 9/11, the United States still lacks a robust deployable, operational civilian capability. This will haunt U.S. foreign policy in the wars to come, as well as in the Iraq transition.”
“State will have to rely on contractors for combat operations. This is a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Military commanders fear sacrifices of 4K+ KIAs will be wasted by Administration's indifference to Iraq and its overly legalistic SOFA parliamentary demands.”
“Ambassador [James] Jeffrey and his team have been doing all they can, but it will NOT be the same without the U.S. military.”
“If the mission is to stabilize Iraq, the idea of U.S. control has always been an illusion.”
“The mission will fade quickly and the large embassy will become a white elephant.”
"But with great difficulty. The President needs to assign the armed forces the mission of protecting our diplomats in conflict zones. This is an urgent need. We must keep DoS from spending its scarce funds on funding security contractors. Diplomats are Americans. They deserve the defense of our Armed Forces in harm's way."
"Yes, but only if Congress funds an additional 2,500 or so private security contractors and if DOD turns over to State gratis the helicopters, ground vehicles, and other assets State will need.... It would not serve US interests to abandon... diplomacy and reconstruction in Iraq. People need to get real about the contributions they make to U.S. interests in risky places."
2. Was the administration's response sufficient to the foiled Iran-backed plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. and bomb embassies in Washington?
- Yes 52%
- No 48%
"The details of the plot are too sketchy to warrant more at this time, regardless of the domestic political pressure. We need to know more than we do now before responding more strongly."
"The complexity of this issue and the linkages to other issues such as the continued development of nuclear materials dictate a broad range of initiatives many of which cannot be made public."
"Not many serviceable options to what is still an episode of questionable credibility."
"Given the uncertainties about this plot, the administration's response not only was sufficient; it was too much."
"Sanctions have been in place for years and been circumvented by the Iranians and other states who continue to engage in business dealings with them. The Administration should have issued a much more muscular denouncement of the plot."
"This was an opportunity to 'go for the max' and then, negotiate with the other Security Council members. By starting with less, the Administration almost guaranteed that the final result will be watered down even further."
"One hopes that more is being done under the radar."
"The fact that Iran was prepared to plan such an attack in the U.S. speaks volumes about how fearful they are of the Obama administration. So far, the Obama administration's reaction has vindicated their judgment."
"Stronger steps will be needed to deter Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps from future, better organized attacks on U.S. interests.... Even though stronger U.S. measures would be best, because the plot was foiled long before it was executed, it will be hard for Washington to develop a political consensus to react as strongly as if the attack had succeeded."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the October 25, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.