President Obama, while meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday in Washington, reiterated U.S. support for Iraq ahead of the U.S. pullout scheduled for the end of the month. Obama expressed the U.S. position that Iraqi sovereignty must be observed and in particular, Iran and other states have an obligation not to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs.
“Prime Minister Maliki has been explicit here in the United States, he’s been explicit back in Iraq in his writings, in his commentary, that his interest is maintaining Iraqi sovereignty and preventing meddling by anybody inside of Iraq. And I believe him. And he has shown himself to be willing to make very tough decisions in the interest of Iraqi nationalism even if they cause problems with his neighbor,” Obama said. Whether this happens, and in particular, if Iran decides against filling the void left by the departing U.S. military, remains to be seen. The president was explicit that Iraq’s neighbors, in particular, Iran, must tread carefully and not take advantage of the void that will ensue on January 1, 2012.
“For just as Iraq has pledged not to interfere in other nations, other nations must not interfere in Iraq. Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected. And meanwhile, there should be no doubt, the drawdown in Iraq has allowed us to refocus our resources, achieve progress in Afghanistan, put al Qaeda on the path to defeat, and to better prepare for the full range of challenges that lie ahead,” Obama emphasized. “So make no mistake, our strong presence in the Middle East endures, and the United States will never waver in defense of our allies, our partners, or our interests,” he continued.
Obama also used Monday’s joint press conference with the prime minister to emphasis that, while the U.S. military will exit Iraq in several weeks, the U.S. will continue to play a hand in the development of Iraq’s democratic trajectory. The United States will further expand trade, invest heavily in soft power such as strengthening “the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends — free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis,” while also bolstering Iraq’s fledgling military.
While the U.S. will have zero ground troops in Iraq, except for residual forces to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and will have turned over all military bases to the Iraqi government, the U.S. will proceed with training programs to help the Iraqi military stand on its own once American military advisors are gone. The Pentagon will coordinate “training and assistance” programs to insure that Iraqi military units are able to operate effectively and independently. Many of these same programs are offered to a number of other American allies in the region.
The Obama administration announced Monday that Iraq would be purchasing an additional 18 F-16 fighter jets. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor announced the deal shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit with Obama. “Today the administration notified Congress of its intent to sell Iraq a second tranche of 18 F-16s,” Vietor said. “This sale is another indication of the continuing US-Iraqi security relationship and cooperation.”
The U.S. sale of fighter planes to a foreign government is not particularly significant in and of itself. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 is a widely used fighter jet, approximating at least a portion of over a dozen country’s militaries. What sets the sale apart is that it is particularly aimed at Iran and it explicitly is a deterrent against Iran’s military. The sale of F-16s to Iraq is part of an overall effort to rebuild Iraq’s military which was virtually destroyed during the 2003 American invasion. Billions of dollars have been spent by Iraq purchasing war materials like tanks, helicopters and now fighter jets.
The exit of the American military from Iraq fulfills one of Obama’s single largest campaign promises made in 2008. However, the U.S., until recently, had been negotiating with al-Maliki’s government to station several thousand American troops in the country past Dec. 31 to participate in training and counter-terrorism operations. The negotiations, which began while Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was still in office, broke down over U.S. insistence that American military personnel be protected from prosecution through an expanded SOFA (status of forces agreement).
The conclusion of the Iraq War, nearly a decade old, is taking place against the backdrop of events marking its end both here in the United States and in Iraq. Vice President Joseph Biden, recently returned from Iraq, where he met with Iraqi officials in Baghdad as well as with the Kurdish Regional Government President, Massoud Barzani, in Erbil, northern Iraq. The vice president told American military personnel at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, Al Faw, “Today we come together at another moment of transition,” Biden said. “In America, and in Iraq, the tide of war is receding. And our relationship, borne on the battlefield and long defined by the imperative of security alone, is now giving way to a new, more normal partnership between sovereign nations seeking to build a future together.”
Despite overwhelming support for Obama’s decision to remove all combat troops, nearly 80 percent of Americans approve of his decision, this has not shielded him from criticism by his potential GOP rivals for president or his 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain. Senator McCain’s office released a statement that coincided with Obama’s and Nouri al-Maliki’s meeting in Washington.
“The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki today cannot obscure the fact that both men have failed in their responsibilities with regard to our shared security interests,” McCain said. “The sacrifices of both our peoples in a long and costly war, the continued needs of Iraq’s Security Forces, and the enduring U.S. interest in a stable and democratic Iraq all demanded a continued presence of U.S. troops beyond this year. But domestic political considerations in each country have been allowed to trump our common security interests.”
Since January 2009 when Obama was sworn in, close to 150,000 American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. The Iraq War, which has cost close to $1 trillion dollars, and cost 4,483 American service members their lives, has been overtaken by the Afghan War in America’s consciousness. Obama, in response to a reporter’s question during the al-Maliki/Obama joint news conference, refrained from describing the war as “dumb” instead choosing to suggest, “history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.”
Despite the appearance of a genial relationship between Obama and al-Maliki during their joint press conference, there are underlying tensions between the United States and Iraq. The United States has taken a hard line when it comes to Iran, imposing tough unilateral sanctions on Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. However, Iraq’s relationship with Iran is much more diverse and complicated and al-Maliki has taken a conciliatory tone when it comes to Iran and its longtime ally, Syria.
The Obama Administration has on several occasions denounced the regime of Bashar al-Assad and has called for Assad to step down on several occasions. Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, sensing that the turmoil in Syria could very well spread to Iraq, has staked a careful position as the turmoil continues to spread throughout Syria. While Obama did acknowledge during their joint press conference that “there are tactical disagreements between Iraq and the United States at this point in how to deal with Syria,” Obama expressed some confidence that al-Maliki would pursue the best course of actions when it comes to Iraq.
“I believe that the parties, all the parties realize the dangers of a sectarian war in Iraq, in Syria, and in the region, because it will be like a snowball that it will expand and it will be difficult to control it. We will try to reach a solution,” al-Maliki said on Monday in Washington. “There is agreement even from the Syrian opposition, who are leading the opposition in Syria, to search for a solution. If we can reach a solution, it will avoid all the evils and the dangers. And if we don’t, there must be another way to reach a solution that will calm the situation in Syria and in the area in general.”