December 1, 2011
ROTC officers reflect on their time in Iraq and the country’s future
On Oct. 21, President Obama announced that full military withdrawal from Iraq will be complete by the end of the year, save for a small force of Marine embassy guards. Withdrawal marks the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, an eight-year war that has cost almost 4,500 American lives.
With this announcement, Obama has fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, after having risen to office in 2008 on a wave of public disapproval over President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war. Ironically, the end-of-year withdrawal was originally part of a timetable negotiated by Bush and Iraqi officials during Bush’s visit to Baghdad in December 2008.
American officials initially wanted a force of a few thousand troops to remain indefinitely in Iraq to prevent future violence. The Pentagon had insisted that these remaining soldiers be granted continued legal immunity from the Iraqi judicial system. Though legal immunity is a common element of status of forces agreements, Iraqi officials refused and negotiations disintegrated.
Not wanting to draw out seemingly futile talks with Iraqi legislators, the White House decided to announce complete military withdrawal. Republican politicians and some military officials have criticized Obama, calling the announcement an at- tempt to reinvigorate Obama’s lackluster approval rating and a glossing over of tense relations with the Iraqi government.
Regardless of its underpinning motivations, withdrawal will occur. Moving forward, the Iraqi people have to “take ownership of their own problems,” said Captain Michael Perry, Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor and Assistant Professor of Military Science and Leadership at Claremont McKenna College. All but three members of the CMC ROTC cadre have been to Iraq. “If you’re in a uniform, you pretty much went,” Perry said.
Perry was stationed in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005, and one of his unit’s primary objectives was securing the city for the 2005 elections. On Election Day, Perry said that roads were closed to allow civilians to safely reach the polls, contributing to a block party atmosphere. “Imagine the 210 crowded with all of the Inland Empire going to the polling station,” he explained.
“That was one of the most patriotic feelings I’ve ever had,” Perry said of the elections. “It was absolutely amazing – grown men crying.” Perry contrasts the enthusiastic elections in Iraq (and their 58 percent turnout) with the “disappointing” political process in the United States, wishing that he could “take every American and stick them in Baghdad on Election Day.”
In terms of whether or not the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place, Perry said he “wrestles with that all the time.” Nevertheless, Perry stated that he is proud to have been a part of the change to democracy, and remains guardedly optimistic about Iraq’s future. “The Iraqi people have a hard time ahead, but I’m very impressed with their leaders.” Lieutenant Colonel William Fitch shares Perry’s guarded optimism, though he is more critical of Iraq’s leaders. Fitch, the CMC ROTC Recruiting Operations Officer, was stations in Iraq in 2004 as part of a civil affairs and operational planning team, working extensively with Iraqi officials. Fitch said he witnessed widespread corruption, “endemic in the culture.”
According to Transparency International, which monitors corruption, Iraq ranks 175 out of 178 countries, beating only Afghanistan, Syria, and Myanmar. Fitch attributed the pervasive problem to Iraqi culture’s tribal roots: “Tribal leaders seem to think that they’re owed something – entitled to something by birthright.”
Corruption, largely through bribery, is by no means a hidden issue. Yet what has allowed it to embed itself in Iraqi government is corrupt officials’ tact, said Fitch. “The people brought in [to hold bureaucratic positions] tended to be foreign-educated Iraqis, very smart, nice guys who understood what Americans wanted to hear, but still had tribal ties.” Fitch said he worked with many “really, very nice guys who wound up in jail for corruption a few months later.”
This corruption is not limited to Iraqi bureaucracy. It extends to the police force, as well. Fitch said he wit- nessed a police captain, after distributing paychecks to his officers, ask for the ten percent he was due. “Ten percent seems to be pretty common” as a slice taken from paychecks, said Fitch.
However, a number of avenues exist to combat corruption. Fitch explained that there are “ways of paying government employees so the money doesn’t go through bureaucracy,” like direct electronic transfers. On a broader level, Fitch said, “leadership needs to serve the people,” and the government “needs to engender a sense of public service.”
Unfortunately, Iraq’s problems do not end with internal corruption. The specter of an increasingly extremist and possibly nuclearized Iran looms large over the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf in particular. “We don’t know the effect this [withdrawal] has on Iran – the more dangerous country by far,” said Fitch. But we do know that the Iranians “want to be key players” in the Middle East, he concluded.
Fitch pointed to Iran’s history of supporting radical Shi’a elements within Iraq: “Iran has already reared its ugly head by undermining groups within Iraq that they disagree with,” especially through military supplies and clandestine training. Iraq’s 2006-2007 civil war between its Shi’a majority and its Sunni minority is evidence enough of the possibility of violent sectarian conflict. Concerns about Iraq’s stability, especially considering its history of ethnic conflict, have only gained more attention in the weeks after Obama’s announcement.
A number of Republicans, including John McCain and presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, have criticized the decision to withdraw, worrying that Obama leaves behind a dysfunctional Iraq.
Meanwhile, a Gallup poll taken a week after Obama’s announcement indicates that 75 percent of Americans agree with the President’s decision to withdraw, including 43 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of independents. Withdrawal thus marks another popular addition to Obama’s strong foreign policy record, which includes the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, the drone killing of American- born al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, and – just the day before Obama’s announcement – the provision of air support that allowed Libyan rebels to apprehend and execute deposed dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Yet in a political environment increasingly focused on domestic issues (especially the economy) Obama’s strong foreign policy record probably won’t help him all that much at the polls next November. The President’s opponents are also quick to point out that, despite his achievements elsewhere in the Middle East, there is still no end in sight in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, withdrawal from Iraq marks the end of a long and decidedly unpopular war. But the U.S. will continue to have a significant presence in the Middle East. The Obama administration has already indicated that they will bol- ster U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf following withdrawal. While they may not be in Iraq, American troops are there to stay.