Why is Obama leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq?

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Gareth Porter says Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeaune, which was supposed to explain the President’s plan to end the war in Iraq is "not doing what it said it’s doing." Porter says the speech creates the, "rationale for a longer term US engagement in Iraq." Responding to Obama pledging a residual force of 35,000-50,000 non-combat troops, Porter says that, "they are combat troops to a great extent… What we’re really talking about is what has been referred to as a "rapid reaction force," says Porter, explaining it will consist of, "one, maybe two or more combat brigade teams."

Part two of this interview will be published on Wednesday, March 4.

Story Transcript

Why is Obama leaving 50k troops in Iraq?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. I’m in a sort of makeshift studio in Maryland, and in our Washington, DC, office is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative historian and journalist. And we’re discussing Barack Obama’s plan for getting out of Iraq. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Before we kick off, let me play you a little clip from President Obama’s announcement of his plans for withdrawal from Iraq.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT: Let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq’s future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has difficulty delivering basic service. Not all of Iraq’s neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraq’s government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner, politically and economically, in the region or with the international community.

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JAY: So, Gareth, what do you make of President Obama’s statement? This piece seems to be less a reason for getting out than, perhaps, a reason for staying.

PORTER: Well, exactly. It really is a bit of a mismatch with the main theme that his speech was supposed to be about, which is that the United States is ending its war in Iraq. This does in fact sound like a kind of a proto-rationale for a longer-term US engagement in Iraq, and in fact the rationale for the Obama administration to really take responsibility, continued responsibility, for the outcome in Iraq. And one would think that a president who is in the process of disengaging and getting out of Iraq would not be making that kind of rhetorical flourish about the continued dangers to security and to the regime in Iraq. And beside that, it seems to me it’s a bit of an exaggeration to talk about the situation in Iraq in those terms. Certainly in relative terms the situation has changed dramatically over the last 18 months, and you have US commanders in the Shiite south as well as in the Sunni west of Iraq declaring in recent weeks that the situation is such that US troops could have gone home some time ago. So, you know, there certainly was an opportunity there for President Obama to take a rather different tack and say this is the moment when the United States should be not only in the process of withdrawing but disengaging from taking responsibility for the situation in Iraq. It’s up to the Iraqis.

JAY: Let me play another clip from President Obama, where he elaborates on this theme.

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OBAMA: So let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end. As we carry out this draw-down, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq. So we will proceed carefully, and I’ll consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government. There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed. After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its security forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 US troops.

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JAY: So what do you make of this?

PORTER: Well, first of all, you know, this rhetoric about ending the US war in Iraq is really far too definitive and really quite profoundly misleading. What’s really happening, clearly, is that the United States will continue to be involved in combat in Iraq well beyond August 2010. The question, really, is whether the promise or the pledge that President Obama has made in this speech, that he intends to withdraw all of US troops by the end of 2011 will in fact be realized. And I think what this speech and what we know about the background of the situation in terms of the freedom that the military has been given to organize this residual force or this transitional force by President Obama raises the question of whether the military really now has a kind of grip on Iraq policy which can force President Obama’s hand should the situation change in any way in Iraq that would give them a rationale for doing so. I think that’s really the great concern that we all should have about this speech and the implications that it has for the future.

JAY: I guess it all goes back to what is the actual objective of US policy now under the Obama administration. Has it changed at all from the Bush administration in terms of what outcome they want to see here? Perhaps the key line in this statement—and I’m going to play it again now.

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OBAMA: But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed.

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JAY: What I’m wondering is if the line "our Iraqi partners" is really the key line here, that there’s a sort of a political stabilization of sorts that’s happened under the current troop levels of the United States, which has meant the Maliki government—and Maliki’s party and Maliki’s coalition forces—is increasingly more powerful and increasing the strengths of the central government. And is that what is really being said here is "We’ll leave enough troops that have to be left to make sure Maliki stays in charge of Iraq"? Is that the [inaudible]?

PORTER: Well, it’s profoundly unclear, I must say, exactly what President Obama means to say in addressing America’s enemies in Iraq in this way and suggesting that we’re going to have the forces here that would be required, apparently, to take on any conceivable contingencies in that country. You know, one could deduce from this language that the forces that are going to be there even beyond 2010 are going to be capable of carrying out major combat operations. Otherwise, why should you address these unnamed enemies in that way? It seems to be language that is aimed at sort of deterrence of the Sunnis, as well as of the Shiites, who might potentially be interested in making some sort of military move. The point that I would make, however, is that clearly whether you’re talking about the Sunni former insurgents who we’ve been paying off to remain quiet over the last couple of years or about the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, former members of the Jaish al Mahdi, the Mahdi Army, you’re talking about leaders and followers who understand that the United States is supposed to be getting out of Iraq, and therefore their calculation is going to be: well, why would we make any move now? Let’s wait until, you know, after 2011. So this either is really meaningless rhetoric or it means that the United States is positioning itself for a longer-term military stay in Iraq, which means the potential for carrying out large-scale combat well beyond 2011.

JAY: Thirty-five to fifty thousand troops are going to be enough to, quote, "support our partners." They have to be a fighting force; they can’t be anything else. In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk a little bit about what this force might be doing, and the 2011 commitment to get out altogether, and whether or not it looks like that is going to be respected. And again it goes back to the basic question: what is the outcome that US policy wants in this situation? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gareth Porter.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.