Obama Iraq Policy

CounterSpin: On August 31, President Barack Obama addressed the country from the Oval Office, discussing America’s wars and the economy. Obama announced the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, and suggested that in doing so, he’d kept a promise. The next day a New York Times editorial called the Iraq conflict "a tragic pointless war." This rational assessment was delivered on the assumption that the war in Iraq was really coming to a clear end, at least for Americans. The Times wasn’t the only outlet to take the Obama proclamations to heart, over and over news outlets reported them as matters of fact.

But how accurate is it to say that U.S. combat troops are leaving, or that combat is over, even just for Americans? Phyllis Bennis joins us to talk about Iraq. She is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you.

CS: As we survey news reports we find that Obama’s proclamation that he has ended combat operations in Iraq, has met with little skepticism from journalists. What’s actually going to happen with U.S. policy in Iraq?

PB: The policy has not changed. It is true that the number of troops are significantly lower than they were at their height of 165,000; it’s now down to about 50,000. That’s a good thing. Reduction in troops is a good thing. But the notion that this troop reduction somehow means that all combat brigades, let alone combat troops, are out of Iraq is just specious. The 50,000 troops that are in Iraq now are combat troops. The Pentagon has, in their own words, remissioned them. They have given combat troops a new mission, which is for training and assistance of the Iraqi military. But they remain combat troops ready to reengage in combat at any given moment. We heard from President Obama about the Fourth Stryker Brigade, which is, as he described it, the last combat brigade leaving Iraq. We didn’t hear about the 3,000 new combat troops, more combat troops, from Fort Hood in Texas, who were just deployed to Iraq about ten days ago. We also didn’t hear about the 4,500 special forces, which have the job: one, of continuing its counterterrorism operation, meaning using its capture-or-kill list to run around the country and capture or kill people. The other is to train their Iraqi counterparts, the Iraqi Special Operations Force, which is shaping up to be something that looks suspiciously like an El Salvador-style death squad. This is not the end of combat.

CS: John Pilger reports in the New Statesman on September 2, that U.S. policy with regard to airstrikes and bombing will not be affected by the President’s announcement. It looks like there’s also, and I think you mentioned it, going to be an increase in the number of contractors, military contractors in country.

PB: Absolutely. The number of contractors is quite disturbing both in its own right and because it’s the beginning of a process underway of militarizing U.S. diplomacy. There will be 7,000 new armed contractors coming into Iraq solely to work under the auspices of the State Department, not the Pentagon, when the State Department becomes the primary U.S. agency in Iraq. What we really didn’t hear from President Obama is that the transition underway is not so much from U.S. control to Iraqi control as much as it is from Pentagon control to State Department control. The agreement that was signed between the U.S. and Iraq that requires, if it doesn’t get changed—which is, I think a likely possibility—required all U.S. troops and armed contractors under Pentagon control to be out of the country by the end of next year, does not apply to contractors, armed or not, under the auspices of the State Department. So with this giant new embassy that holds 5,000 diplomats—it’s the size of Vatican City—there will be at least 7,000 armed contractors. The State Department is bringing in armored cars, surveillance drones, planes, and their own rapid response forces. So what we’re seeing is the Pentagon leaving, largely, but the State Department taking on military tasks.

CS: The State Department, in addition to buying some armored vehicles, is also buying 25 Blackhawk helicopters. Well, in coordination with President Obama’s announcement of the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, the commander of those operations, General Ray Odierno, addressed a ceremony held at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad, telling the crowd, "For now my journey is over," and proclaiming that in Iraq, "hope has replaced despair." From what you know, does that assessment accurately portray the feelings on the street?

PB: Quite the opposite. It’s a very depressed time because of the conditions facing people with inadequate electricity, inadequate clean water, inadequate jobs, inadequate everything except for baking heat and military occupation and more violence. Ironically, those statements you just read don’t even match what General Odierno himself said to the New York Times just this past Monday, just 48 hours before the speech that you referenced, where he was asked whether the United States had made the country’s divisions worse, and his answer was I don’t know. There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand, that we had to work our way through, he said. Did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe. He said we came in naive about what the problems were in Iraq. I don’t think we understood. And then goes through a whole list of things that the U.S. troops didn’t understand. And those of us who tried to say this isn’t going to work, you don’t understand—well, we didn’t get a hearing.

CS: Well, one of the things we’ve noted with coverage of this phase of the Iraq War is the invisibility of Iraqis and their views. This might account for why a general can get away with saying something like hope has replaced despair in Iraq.

PB: I think that the lack of Iraqi voices has been huge. We hear, once in awhile, Iraqi voices in exile. We almost never hear Iraqi voices, other than officials and Iraqi generals. But for people on the street, even beyond the general sense that nobody in any country wants to have foreign troops occupying their land. But in the very specific sense in Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops has not been able to protect them from the rising violence, from the massive loss of jobs, from the lack of electricity. The heat of Basra—I’ve been to Basra this time of year—it’s 130 degrees there, and people don’t even have fans, let alone air conditioning. They don’t have enough clean water even to drink, let alone take a cool shower. So it’s a desperate situation facing the vast majority of people in Iraq. It’s part of the reason that the current government in Iraq, which isn’t even the new government—there hasn’t been a government created six months after the elections. But the caretaker government has such little credibility and such little support in its own country because of the massive corruption and because of this vast gap between the lives of people in the Parliament or in the government, who drive around in their air conditioned cars with their security entourage while the people of their country are sweltering in the streets.

CS: So there’s very little justification for talking about success or victory or kept promises, I guess.

PB: I would say there’s no justification for talking about victory or success. And I think, actually, President Obama was quite careful not to do so. The promise kept technically, the combat brigades have been withdrawn in the sense that they have been renamed. Combat troops remain. The substance of that promise has not been kept. The technical, the language of the promise, maybe. But I think many people thought that this president was not just someone driven by spin and language.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis, author of Ending the Iraq War: A Primer and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis!

PB: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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