Update: Jeremy Scahill offers a related, pessimistic analysis on AlterNet. Marc Lynch is much more hopeful.
"Intend to" as in "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011"....
With that statement, President Obama apparently went beyond my immediate concern that some in the US Government were planning on the long-term stay of 50,000 American soldiers in the country. With those two words, however, he left himself room for manoeuvre. Less positively, it is also room for the US military and its supporters to maintain its pressure for permanent bases in the area. That is the space that leading Democrats in Congress were trying to shut down last night; as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi framed it, "The remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible."
In that context, the headline of "the historic announcement" of an 18-month timetable for withdrawal of US combat troops is peripheral. Whether it was 16 months (Obama's original plan), 23 months (the US military's counter), or 18 months (the political compromise) is tangential to the larger questions of the American political and military intentions.
Far more important is a passage in the speech that has received less media attention, except from The Washington Post:
We must work with our friends and partners to establish a new framework that advances Iraq’s security and the region’s....Going forward, the United States will pursue principled and sustained engagement with all of the nations in the region, and that will include Iran and Syria.
As I've noted before, that was a formula put forward by the Iraq Study Group in 2006 but rejected by the Bush Administration in favour of the military-first "surge": "The United States should immediately launch a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. This diplomatic effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors."
Obama's Iraq strategy is thus part of the wider engagement strategy his Administration has been pushing from Inauguration Day. On the one hand, that raises optimism that the discussions with Syria and Iran are not just token displays and could lead to the most productive American strategy in the "wider Middle East" in at least 30 years. On the other, the failure of that engagement now has serious consequences: if talks with Tehran and/or Damascus collapse, then Obama's "intention to" withdraw completely by the end of 2001 is in jeopardy.
Which brings up back to those 50,000 troops. The Iraq Study Group was clear: "The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq." That recommendation, however, ran up against an earlier Bush Administration strategy of maintaining an indefinite presence in the country, not primarily for Iraqi stability, but to maintain a "preponderance of power" over rivals such as Syria and Iran and to ensure control of energy resources. Some in the US military, and their supporters outside Government, are still wedded to that vision.
That, of course, is a prospect which is not welcomed by many folks in Tehran or Damascus, let alone the political elite in Baghdad. So the irony is that the frontline of Obama's Iraq plan is not in Iraq but in the wider region. Watch the manoeuvres of those who are hostile to any engagement not only because they don't like "rogue states" (and, in some cases, are committed to an Israel-first approach) but because they want to maintain a platform for US permanent bases in Iraq. And watch for the response of the Obama Administration --- the longer it sustains a serious commitment to the regional dialogue advocated in 2006, the more likely it is that the President's "intend to" becomes a reality.