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US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq a Key Challenge for Obama

A major foreign policy challenge facing the Obama administration is Iraq according to several former senior U.S. government officials.

Many analysts say that on Iraq, the key question facing Barack Obama after he becomes president January 20 is how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops from that country.

The recently signed status-of-forces agreement between the United States and Iraq says all American combat troops must leave that country by December 2011. But during the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to remove U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration - that is by May 2010.

Former Secretary of State [1992] Lawrence Eagleburger says you have to accept either one withdrawal date or the other.

"I don't think it's a circle you can square," Eagleburger said. "I think the 16-month proposal is fatally flawed in the sense that the opposition, these terrorists and so forth, can just sit back for 16 months if necessary and then go hell bent [all out] for it when we leave. Or to put it another way, if we are going to leave after 16 months no matter whether successful or not, any GIs [soldiers] that are killed in that 16 months - it's a waste, they should never have been left there."

However former Secretary of Defense [1973-1975] James Schlesinger sees some flexibility and room for maneuver in the Obama position.

"Obama has indicated that he would listen to his generals in the field and he's indicated he wants U.S. troops out safely," Schlesinger said. "That gives him plenty of wiggle room [flexibility] with regard to the precise timing. I believe that he indeed does want to get them out in 16 months but that he will, likely, show some flexibility, depending on the situation. If it looks as if there would be a deterioration if our troops are pulled out prematurely, I think that he would show some flexibility."

Former National Security Adviser [1974-77; 1989-93] and retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft says it's possible to find a compromise between the Obama proposal and the U.S.-Iraqi agreement.

"I think it's doable, because, as a matter of fact, both the agreement that we have with Iraq and Obama's latest comments on it, that he will listen to troop commanders and look at the situation - so I think there's enough room in there to accommodate the situation," Scowcroft said. "My own view is that setting policy by a calendar is not a good idea, that it ought to be based on the situation on the ground. The military commanders have already given Obama a new, tentative assessment to begin draw downs again. So my sense is that as the situation goes - for the [U.S.-Iraqi] agreement it's three years, for Obama it's 16 months - that circle will not be too difficult to square."

All three former U.S. government officials agree the security situation in Iraq has improved dramatically, in large part due to the increase of more than 30,000 U.S. troops beginning in January 2007 - known as the surge.

But they also agree the political situation is tenuous. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

"The military situation is proceeding really quite well, but the political situation is really very fragile," Scowcroft said. "Among the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds, there is still a lot of animosity and distrust - even the Shias themselves have internal difficulties. They are trying to resolve some of these issues and the regional and local elections that they are going to have this year may help resolve them or they may make them worse."

Experts say after Barack Obama is inaugurated president January 20, he will inherit major domestic and foreign policy challenges, all vying for his attention. Many analysts believe the political and military situation in Iraq will be near or at the top of the list.