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White House

ANALYSIS

Obama May Face Tough Decision as Iraqi Leader Signals U.S. Troops Could Stay

Iraq's prime minister opened the door to having U.S. troops stay after 2011. Where does that leave a president who vowed to withdraw them?

With American troops scheduled to leave Iraq this year, President Obama may be forced to consider going back on his word and leaving them there now that Iraq's prime minister said his country might ask the United States to leave boots on the ground.

Obama has stood solidly behind his pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, as dictated by a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement signed more than three years ago. He’s reiterated his intent as recently as six weeks ago, when in announcing his decision to take military action against Libya he noted that the U.S. remained committed to "leaving Iraq to its people."

 

Obama’s position—one he staked out as a candidate chasing the Democratic nomination in 2008—was bolstered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s repeated insistence that the U.S. military sticks to the withdrawal timeline.

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But this week, for the first time, Maliki indicated a willingness to call for an extension of the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond this year’s troop withdrawal deadline. Maliki announced Wednesday that he’d be willing to ask for some troops to remain if there’s consensus among Iraq’s various political blocs that a continued American presence is needed. Such consensus is anything but assured but the mere fact that Maliki raised the issue had deep resonance in Washington.

 

Maliki’s remarks came as a surprise to administration officials. In private talks with Iraqi officials, the United States has broached the idea of leaving some of the 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year. Publicly, the administration has not said one way or another whether it would honor a request from Iraq to keep U.S. troops there after this year.

Still, top Pentagon officials have telegraphed a willingness to at least consider any plea from Baghdad. Earlier this spring, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the administration would consider a request to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that any request for troops will be needed sooner than later.

But the commander-in-chief has been notably silent on the issue. The president knows that any signal that he gives that he’d be willing to keep American troops in Iraq would shape the political conversation in Baghdad not to mention across the United States.

“While the chairman, or the secretary of defense from time-to-time can speak out loud, anything the president could say would be amplified back in Iraq,” said Christopher Hill, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Baghdad from 2009 to 2010. “I think it’s very prudent for the president not to be speaking on this subject.”

 

Maliki has been resistant to taking up the issue, administration officials say, because of the prime minister's concern that he would be exposing himself politically. After all, Maliki was only able to cobble together a coalition that included lawmakers loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite anti-American cleric who has long opposed the U.S. military presence there. Even in his call for consensus on extending the troop presence, Maliki adroitly refused to say where he himself stands on keeping residual U.S. forces in Iraq.

While violence in Iraq has diminished from the worst days of the insurgency in 2006, the U.S. military continues to play a critical role in maintaining the peace along the fractious Kurdish-Arab fault-line in northern Iraq. And while the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have increased significantly, the embryonic democracy possesses only a token air force and remain incapable of defending their borders from neighboring Iran. The two nations fought throughout the 1980s in a bloody battle that led to more than a million casualties. More recently, the porous border has seen arms funneled from the regime in Tehran to Iraqi insurgents.

Any Iraqi request to keep American troops on their soil, puts the president in a difficult policy and political position.

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If Obama keeps American troops in Iraq after this year, he'll be going back on his word and continuing to fight what he once derisively called a “dumb war.” Were he to refuse a plea from an American ally, he could be seen as abandoning a friend. Were Iraq to slip back into chaos after such a refusal he would surely be slammed for having lost Iraq. 

But Hill, who is now serving as the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, says that Obama could pull off keeping troops in Iraq without taking political flack.

“It all depends on what type of numbers we’re talking about, what kind of mission it is,” Hill told National Journal. “Many people who were not enthusiasts of the Iraq war have nonetheless come to see the necessity of bringing it to a conclusion that’s consistent with our interests. The president is certainly in that category.”

A modest continuation of an American troop presence for a stipulated time longer would probably pass muster with Congress and the American public. But with America at war in Afghanistan and taking part in military action against Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces in Libya, it's surely not another national security decision this president wants to make. 

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