by Jeremy Scahill
The New York Times is reporting about an "apparent evolution" in president-elect Barack Obama's thinking on Iraq, citing his recent statements about his plan to keep a "residual force" in the country and his pledge to "listen to the recommendations of my commanders" as Obama prepares to assume actual command of US forces. "At the Pentagon and the military headquarters in Iraq, the response to the statements this week from Mr. Obama and his national security team has been akin to the senior officer corps' letting out its collective breath," the Times reported. "[T]the words sounded to them like the new president would take a measured approach on the question of troop levels."
The reality is there is no "evolution."
Anyone who took the time to cut past Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric of "change" and bringing an "end" to the Iraq war realized early on that the now-president-elect had a plan that boiled down to a down-sizing and rebranding of the occupation. While he emphasized his pledge to withdraw U.S. "combat forces" from Iraq in 16 months (which may or may not happen), he has always said that he intends to keep "residual forces" in place for the foreseeable future.
It's an interesting choice of terms. "Residual" is defined as "the quantity left over at the end of a process." This means that the forces Obama plans to leave in Iraq will remain after he has completed his "withdrawal" plan. No matter how Obama chooses to label the forces he keeps in Iraq, the fact is, they will be occupation forces.
Announcing his national security team this week, Obama reasserted his position. "I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary — likely to be necessary — to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq." While some have protrayed this as Obama going back on his campaign pledge, it is not. What is new is that some people seem to just now be waking up to the fact that Obama never had a comprehensive plan to fully end the occupation. Most recently, The New York Times:
"On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama offered a pledge that electrified and motivated his liberal base, vowing to 'end the war' in Iraq," wrote reporter Thom Shanker on Thursday. "But as he moves closer to the White House, President-elect Obama is making clearer than ever that tens of thousands of American troops will be left behind in Iraq, even if he can make good on his campaign promise to pull all combat forces out within 16 months."
For many months it's been abundantly clear that Obama's Iraq plan is at odds with his campaign rhetoric. Yet, Shanker writes, "to date, there has been no significant criticism from the antiwar left of the Democratic Party of the prospect that Mr. Obama will keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for at least several years to come." The Times is actually right about this, in a literal sense. There has seldom, if ever, been a public peep about Obama's residual force plans for Iraq from members of his own party, including from those who describe themselves as "anti-war."
But, for those who have scrutinized Obama's plans and the statements of his advisors from the beginning, this is old news. Obama never defined "ending the war" as removing all U.S. forces from Iraq. Besides the counsel of his closest advisors — many of whom are pro-war hawks — Obama's Iraq plan is based on two primary sources: the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton "Iraq Study Group" and the 2007 Iraq supplemental spending bill, which, at the time was portrayed as the Democrats' withdrawal plan. Both envisioned a sustained presence of U.S. forces for an undefined period following a "withdrawal."
In supporting the 2007 supplemental, Obama said it would put the U.S. "one signature away from ending the Iraq War." The bill would have redeployed U.S. forces from Iraq within 180 days. But that legislation, vetoed by President Bush, would also have provided for 20,000 to 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq as "trainers," "counter-terrorist forces," or for "protection for embassy/diplomats," according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies. The bill contained no language about how many "private contractors" could remain in Iraq. This helped shed light on what Obama actually meant by "ending the Iraq War."
Other glaring clues to the actual nature of Obama's Iraq plan to anyone paying attention could be found in the public comments of his advisors, particularly on the size of the force Obama may leave in Iraq after his withdrawal is complete. Obama has refused to talk numbers, saying in October, "I have tried not to put a number on it." That has been the position of many of his loyal aides. "We have not put a number on that. It depends on the circumstances on the ground," said Susan Rice, Obama's nominee for UN ambassador, during the campaign. "It would be worse than folly, it would be dangerous, to put a hard number on the residual forces."
But, Richard Danzig, President Clinton's former Navy Secretary who may soon follow Robert Gates as Obama's Defense Secretary, said during the campaign that the "residual force" could number as many as 55,000 troops. That doesn't include Blackwater and other mercenaries and private forces, which the Obama camp has declared the president-elect "can't rule out [and] won't rule out" using. At present there are more "contractors" in Iraq than soldiers, which is all the more ominous when considering Obama's Iraq plan.
In April, it was revealed that the coordinator of Obama's Iraq working group, Colin Kahl, had authored a paper, titled "Stay on Success: A Policy of Conditional Engagement," which recommended, "the U.S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000-80,000 forces) by the end of 2010 (although the specific timelines should be the byproduct of negotiations and conditions on the ground)." Kahl tried to distance the views expressed in the paper from Obama's official campaign position, but they were and are consistent.
In March, Obama advisor Samantha Power let the cat out of the bag for some people when she described her candidate's 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. "combat" forces as a "best case scenario." Power said, "He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator." (After that remark and referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton as a "monster," Power resigned from the campaign. Now that Obama is president-elect, Power's name has once again resurfaced as a member of his transitional team.)
The New York Times also raised the prospect that Obama could play semantics when defining his 16-month withdrawal plan, observing, "Pentagon planners say that it is possible that Mr. Obama's goal could be accomplished at least in part by relabeling some units, so that those currently counted as combat troops could be 're-missioned,' their efforts redefined as training and support for the Iraqis."
Compare all of the above with a statement Obama made in July: "I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively."
Some may now accuse Obama of flip-flopping. The reality is that we need to understand what the words "end" "war" "residual" and "decisively" mean when we hear Obama say them.
Jeremy Scahill pledges to be the same journalist under an Obama administration that he was during Bill Clinton and George Bush's presidencies. He is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army and is a frequent contributor to The Nation and Democracy Now! He is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.