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Read the Fine Print

Obama Needs to Withdraw Troops More Quickly and Completely.

Americans should be excused for believing they voted for an end to the war in Iraq by bringing congressional Democrats to power in 2006 and electing Barack Obama in 2008. Obama’s campaign website promised, “Obama will responsibly end the war in Iraq” and “the removal of our troops will be responsible and phased.” In last week’s speech to a joint session of Congress, he succinctly pledged, “I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war.”

To most people, ending a war means withdrawing all forces and returning home. But politicians are wily, and the voting consumer should always read the fine print. President Obama apparently only means withdrawing all “combat” troops, which—leaves large numbers of forces—as many as 50,000 on the ground by simply re-labeling the lingering combat missions. Furthermore, in a counterinsurgency war lacking defined front lines, all remaining U.S. forces are susceptible to attack—especially those training and advising Iraqi forces in combat, those conducting dangerous raids against “terrorists,” and personnel assigned to protect important facilities, such as the U.S. embassy or military bases.

When most Americans think of the military, they assume its function is to fight, and likely do not understand the distinction between “combat” and “non-combat” forces. Their instincts are right in counterinsurgency war, which puts most of the force in some sort of danger. The people have spoken twice about this issue, and politicians who hide behind arcane bureaucratic distinctions face political consequences.

Americans will likely become disillusioned when U.S. casualties continue after all combat forces leave in August 2010. The public probably will not care whether such a withdrawal occurs then or three months earlier, as Obama promised during the campaign. But they will indeed care if existing ethno-sectarian violence again worsens (as has historically been the case in similar conflicts) and leads to significant casualties among the smaller, more vulnerable U.S. forces that remain. Obama should follow the spirit of his promise, not just the letter, and take advantage of the lull in violence to withdraw more quickly and completely.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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