Barack Obama's "New Plan" For Failure

This column was written by Frederick W. Kagan.

In a speech that will no doubt be hailed by the left as bold and original, Senator Barack Obama today unveiled "his" plan for a "responsible" withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2009. The plan may be bold, but it is certainly not original. In fact, Obama's plan is extremely similar to one unveiled in June by the Center for a New American Strategy called "Phased Transition: A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq." Like the CNAS report, Obama's plan calls for the withdrawal of almost all American combat forces from Iraq by the time the next president takes office (oddly enough), but purports to offer ways to achieve vital American goals in Iraq without using U.S. forces in combat, including continuing the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, helping the Iraqis achieve political reconciliation, preventing the Iraq struggle from becoming a regional war, and preventing genocide within Iraq (the CNAS report called its objectives "the three nos:" no al Qaeda, no regional war, and no genocide, and also argued that its approach would enable reconciliation within Iraq). Like the CNAS plan, Obama's proposal asserts that U.S. forces can continue to train Iraqi Security Forces even after this withdrawal of combat power (as long as the ISF are non-sectarian). Like the CNAS plan, Obama's proposal is utterly unworkable. Any attempt to transfer it from the realm of thought-experiment to the real world would lead to immediate disaster in Iraq and the region.

The authors of the CNAS report, James Miller and Shawn Brimley, put a lot of serious effort into the challenge of finding some middle way to achieve America's goals in Iraq that was neither precipitous withdrawal nor the current strategy. They considered real military problems in some detail and offered a detailed proposal backed with reasoned arguments. In the end, as an equally detailed study by the American Enterprise Institute concluded, the solution Miller and Brimley came up with is simply not feasible from a military-technical standpoint, and relies on a number of baseless assumptions about how Iraqi and regional actors will respond. Any effort to implement it in the timelines suggested in the report would lead to the immediate collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces for certain, and most probably an escalation in violence, the collapse of the Iraqi government, and a failure to achieve any of America's vital national security goals in Iraq.

The CNAS team deserves credit for making a serious and respectable effort to grapple with a difficult task. Obama's proposal does not. Not only is it a strategy someone else developed and published, but it is dumbed down to the point of incoherence. On the one hand, the plan trumpets: "All combat troops redeployed by 2009." The proposal even provides a little plan for how to do that: "The withdrawal would be strategic and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Troops would be removed from secure areas first, with troops remaining longer in more volatile areas. The drawdown would begin immediately with one or two combat brigades deploying each month and all troops engaged in combat operations out by the end of the year." This sounds good (if one accepts the premise that withdrawal is desirable), but means little.