President Obama’s surprise announcement Friday that all US forces would leave Iraq in time to be home for the holidays has been roundly condemned. While there are real concerns about what happens next, there was no better alternative.

American Security Project senior fellow Michael Cohen dismisses the critiques as “nakedly partisan talking points masquerading as policy disputes.” In some cases, this is rather transparent. Take former Speaker of the House and now ostensible candidate for president Newt Gingrich, who went from  declaring “The president is right. You can’t just leave 3,000 or 5,000 troops there. They would simply become targets” on Friday to proclaiming “The president has announced what will be seen by historians as a decisive defeat for the U.S. in Iraq” just two days later.


But Cohen paints with too broad a brush in applying that critique to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, die-hard American Greatness conservatives who truly believe that Americans can reshape the region and the world if we simply give it enough time, troops, and willpower. Cohen points out that these men have been staunch advocates for the democratization of Iraq and sees hypocrisy in now chiding Obama for not working harder to defy the will of the Iraqi people. But support for democracy doesn’t necessarily mean liking the policy outcomes that come from it. By that logic, McCain shouldn’t express any opinions about US foreign policy at all on the basis that the American electorate preferred Obama over him in 2008.

While there are no doubt many Republicans looking for any excuse to condemn Obama for foreign policy weakness, there’s an actual policy dispute here. Retired General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army and key advocate of the 2007 Surge, is among the most credible critics, calling it a “disaster” in an interview with Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times. He declares, “We won the war in Iraq, and we’re now losing the peace.” He continues, “We should be staying there to strengthen that democracy, to let them get the kind of political gains they need to get and keep the Iranians away from strangling that country. That should be our objective, and we are walking away from that objective.”

Keane claims that current US commander in Iraq, Geneal Lloyd Austin, wanted at least 15,000 troops for 2012 and preferred 25,000.

Scarborough also reports that “Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark T. Kimmitt, a former deputy operations chief in Baghdad and a policymaker at the Pentagon, said the effectiveness of Iraq’s counterinsurgency operations against Shiite extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq may drop as much as 50 percent.”

Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent for Newsweek, is especially concerned that America’s Joint Special Operations Command will be leaving and that there will therefore be no ability to carry out covert counter-terror and intelligence missions. While there are apparently negotiations going on behind the scenes to replace some of this capability with civilian personnel, mostly from the CIA, Lake doesn’t think that will be sufficient.

Additionally, people Lake talks to are concerned that total withdrawal of American military forces (aside from Embassy security personnel) will deprive their Iraqi counterparts of vital assets ranging from aircraft maintenance to logistics and intelligence to medical evacuation.

Of particular concern to Lake and some he interviews is the lost insights into the Iranian regime gleaned from key Iraqi hot spots, notably “the western Iraqi desert that produced al Qaeda in Iraq; Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, which remains a hub for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps and other Shiite militias; and Najaf, the Muslim holy city that hosts the most prestigious seminary for Shiite theologians, known as the Hawza.”

Ned Parker of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees, arguing that the departure of US forces will take away the primary barrier to renewed civil war between the forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and chief rival Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, not to mention keeping Iraq’s Shiites from becoming a partner with Iran.

These are legitimate concerns and there’s pretty strong evidence that even the Iraqi leadership is worried about what comes after American troops leave. But, for reasons noted by Parker and The Atlantic‘s Max Fisher, the domestic politics of Iraq precludes their leaders from accepting the continued presence of American soldiers–widely seen as occupiers–under conditions acceptable to the United States.

When the outgoing Bush administration negotiated this timetable three years ago, it was widely assumed that it would be renegotiated to allow a significant number of American forces to remain on the ground in a supporting role. Al-Maliki would surely prefer to allow that to happen. But the only way he could allow that politically was to insist that they be subject to Iraqi sovereignty. And no American president could allow that. Even our forces in developed states like Germany and Japan are under Status of Forces Agreements that cede jurisdiction over criminal matters to US authorities. And they’re not in a position where their official duties call for them to shoot local nationals.

McCain and others have argued that Obama could have overcome this objection if only he had the will. But Christopher Hill, who served as US Ambassador to Iraq from 2009 to 2010, puts it succinctly: “It is hard to see what any US administration should do when a country’s leaders no longer want to station our troops on their soil. Threaten them? Bribe them? Somehow offer more compelling arguments so that they will slap the side of their head with the palm of their hand and say, ‘oh! Now I understand!'”

Additionally, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points out, “The US was always going to leave Iraq eventually, and Iran was always going to exert more influence on the region as a result.” He adds, “if the war you advocate requires for its success the indefinite deployment of US troops, you’ve advocated a failed war.”

It has been almost eight years since US. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. At some point, the Iraqis were going to have to manage their own affairs. Ready or not, that time has come.

 James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner