Last week, after President Obama’s announcement that U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney responded with a particularly harsh attack:
“President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq.”
To many ears, the outburst seemed overwrought and tone deaf. From the beginning of our negotiations with Iraq dating back to the Bush administration, the most difficult stumbling block has been the guarantee of legal immunity for U.S. troops stationed in that country. The Bush administration wanted to ensure that if our men and women in uniform were charged with doing something wrong during their time in Iraq, they would be tried by American authorities, under American law. Because they couldn’t overcome Iraqi resistance to that provision, President Bush was forced to sign an agreement in 2008 committing the United States to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Upon taking office, President Obama and his team confronted that same resistance in attempting to extend the withdrawal deadline. And as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made clear over the weekend, that wasn’t going to change:
“When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible. The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started.”
Given Iraq’s intransigence on that critical issue, what alternative course would a President Romney have taken? Would he have surrendered to Iraqi demands and exposed our troops to Iraqi law, which under Iraq’s constitution is based on Islamic law? Under President Romney, would our men and women in uniform be stripped of their constitutional rights as Americans and be subject to arrest by Iraqi authorities, subject to trial in Iraqi courts, and subject to punishment in Iraqi prisons?
Or would President Romney simply keep our troops in Iraq without permission of the Iraqi government? That would have been quite an ending to a war ostensibly fought for Iraqi freedom, and in fact labeled “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The irony would have been compounded by the fact that we would be in defiance of international law, the very charge we used against Saddam Hussein to justify our invasion. We would reveal ourselves to be conquerors, not liberators, just as our worst critics claimed.
However, the overly emotional response from the Romney camp becomes a little easier to understand, if not defend, once you look at the team of foreign-policy advisers assembled by the former Massachusetts governor to advise him.
It includes Eliot Cohen, who had advocated a U.S. invasion of Iraq for a decade prior to Sept. 11. Cohen was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, a group of neoconservatives dedicated to a much more aggressive and militaristic posture by the United States. In fact, Romney selected Cohen to write the forward to his campaign’s foreign-policy “white paper,” titled “An American Century.”
Ten years ago, in December 2001, Cohen wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Iraq Can’t Resist Us: The Gulf War was a cakewalk. The enemy is even weaker now.” He began pushing the line that, as he told CNN, “we do know that there is a connection with the 9/11 terrorists. We do know that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 terrorists, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.” He also dismissed the silly notion that an invasion might risk a breakout of ethnic violence in post-invasion Iraq.
Even now, Cohen argues that the chief lesson of Iraq is not that we should not attempt such things in the future; the lesson is that when we do it again, we should do it more competently.
Other members of the Romney foreign-policy team have equally deep roots in the Iraq adventure and the neoconservative movement that pushed it. Cofer Black, a former CIA official, served as vice chairman of Blackwater USA from 2005 to 2008, a fact not mentioned in the biography provided by the Romney campaign.
Robert Kagan was a co-founder, along with Bill Kristol, of the Project for a New American Century and a longtime vocal advocate of invading Iraq. Eric Edelman served as a national security assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney in the early years of the Bush administration.
Dov Zakheim was also a charter member of the Project for a New American Century and had been part of the team assembled by Cheney to update then-candidate George Bush on foreign policy. He served as undersecretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Andrew Natsios served as head of USAID in the Bush administration, memorably promising the American public that total reconstruction costs in Iraq would come to no more than $1.7 billion
Paula Dobriansky, another neoconservative and PNAC signatory, was also a staunch advocate of using military force to remake the Middle East, as was Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman and PNAC signatory. Robert Joseph, a National Security Council adviser under Bush, arranged to smuggle an allegation that Saddam was seeking uranium into Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, a claim that later had to be withdrawn. And Meghan O’Sullivan and Dan Senor were top aides to Paul Bremer, the man who badly mismanaged the Coalition Provisional Authority in post-invasion Iraq. As Bremer’s spokesman, Senor in particular became infamous for insisting that great progress was being made, even as everyone else saw it all crumbling around their ears.
These are the people who dominate Romney’s foreign policy team. These are the people who would have his ear if he were to become our next president. Once that is understood, the reaction of the Romney team to Obama’s announcement becomes not only understandable. It becomes a warning.
– Jay Bookman