More on war…and peace…

President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki  Source: AFP
President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki Source: AFP
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon)  Source: PBS
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon) Source: PBS

President Obama said back at the end of February that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, with most out by August 2010.  His policy is to pull out of Iraq and take American power instead to Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to root out Al Qaeda and do some nation-building there.  There will be ramifications of this policy shift.   One risk, highlighted by those on the right and in a weekend New York Times article, is that the successes of the surge, namely the build-up of the Sunni Awakening Councils that took back Sunni strongholds from Al Qaeda, could be reversed. 

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has allegedly ramped up arrests of Awakening leaders, while U.S. forces stand by.   President Obama’s policy could leave the Iraqis to slug it out, as perhaps they should.  But, nonetheless, let us be clear on what the ramifications of this policy shift might be:  increased bloodshed and instability in Iraq; Shiite dominance in a sizable power so close to Iran and the Gulf; and, possibly a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Sunni areas.

General Raymond T. Odierno, America’s top commander in Iraq and a key architect of the surge, weighed in on the issue and with his opinion of President Obama this weekend on John King’s State of the Union:

“He’s our commander-in-chief,” Odierno said.  “As our commander-in-chief, we take direction from him.”  He added:  “He’s very attentive. He listens. He’s incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues. . . .He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions and that’s all you can expect out of your commander-in-chief. And I’ve been very pleased with the interaction that I’ve been able to have with him.”

In a New York Times column this weekend, Jean Edward Smith argues that President Obama, in handling Iraq, should take a page from President Eisenhower’s decision to end the war in Korea in 1953.  Eisenhower, in spite of the hawks in his own party, decided to negotiate an armistice at the 38th Parallel with the communist adversary.  With 150,000 U.S. war dead, America and the West would reap no gain, nor the flip side, inflict no punishment on the communist aggressor.

Just like Obama did in Iraq last week, Ike went to Korea and had a look for himself and decided it was a stalemate.  When South Korean President Rhee tried to derail the talks with the north, Ike threatened to pull out of Korea entirely, which would have left Rhee to face the communist onslaught himself.  U.S. troops, though reduced in recent years, remain in Korea to this day.

The parallel that Smith makes between Ike and Obama is not compelling.  What the Obama administration plans for Iraq is more akin to the threat Ike made to Rhee (to pull all U.S. troops out) than it is to the Korea policy followed by successive administrations since 1953.  That is, to maintain a U.S. troop presence to help secure South Korea from aggression.  Smith makes a good point that only Ike, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, could have pushed through such an armistice in Korea.  Had Truman tried this, he might have been impeached.  While President Obama doesn’t have the military stature that Ike had, his Iraq policy is broadly popular.

Ike and Truman both sought a measured response in Korea.  They both sought to contain the extension of communism without triggering a world war with China and the Soviet Union.  MacArthur and others on the Republican right wanted to take the war to the Chinese. (Ike’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even said the Chinese required “one hell of a licking.”)  Kissinger has argued that the best scenario for U.S. interests would have been something in between what Ike and Truman sought and what the right wing aspired to.  He has argued that U.S. forces should have moved, early in the war, not to the border with China at the Yalu River, which MacArthur did, triggering a massive Chinese response, but to one hundred miles south of that, at the “narrow neck” of the Korean peninsula, a defensible position where the country would have been nearly reunified, with 90% of the population and the capital of the north behind allied lines.  This way the U.S. would still have avoided threatening China, but would have secured a non-communist reunification of Korea.  We wouldn’t have this pesky nuclear arms mess with North Korea today.  But there are no sure bets in war and peace: there is no certainty that the Chinese would have tolerated even Kissinger’s scenario.

Perhaps President Obama should endeavor to find Kissinger’s middle ground in decisions on where to apply U.S. military power.  Reap the maximum advantage without threatening the major powers.  Easy to write, much harder to do.  That’s why I blog…

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