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AEI scholar and Iraq surge co-author, Fred Kagan on Obama’s decision to retreat in Iraq

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HH: I turned on the television in the hotel, and saw the president of the United States announcing we were leaving Iraq. And even Fareed Zakaria had to say this is not a good thing. But to talk about, we were able to grab Fred Kagan, who is the resident scholar and director of the AEI, American Enterprise Institute, Critical Threats Project. And perhaps more than any other civilian, had to do with the architecture of the surge. Fred Kagan, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

FK: Thanks, Hugh.

HH: What is your reaction to today’s announcement?

FK: Well, I’m not surprised, because we’ve seen this building for some time that they were headed in this direction. And the administration has clearly not been serious about establishing a long term relationship with Iraq from the outset. But it is incredibly disappointing, nevertheless. And honestly, I think it’s really a humiliating day for American foreign policy, and will have done tremendous damage to our position in the world, not only because of the fact itself, but also because of the entire way that it’s been presented.

HH: Fred Kagan, I want to start with the fact we recognize 4,400 Americans lost their lives in the campaign to liberate Iraq, and an enormous amount of treasure. And this is coming a week after Iran attempted, or at least we learned that Iran was attempting to blow up the Saudi Arabian ambassador. How does this move affect the Islamic Republic of Iran?

FK: This move is exactly what the Islamic Republic of Iran has been trying to accomplish for years. And in fact, what we have seen in recent months has been an escalation in the activities of Iranian-backed militias and Iranian proxies within Iraq, including a campaign of targeted assassinations against Iraqi officials, that had the precise purpose of pressuring Iraqi leaders not to make an agreement with us to extend the presence of our forces. So what we have just done is to give the most extreme elements within the Iranian leadership and Iranian military exactly what they have been pursuing. So in that sense, this is a great day for Iran.

HH: Does it threaten the peace in Iraq by threatening the Sunni tribes of Anbar, and of course, their Saudi-Arabian backers?

FK: The retreat of American forces from Iraq puts Iraqi stability at tremendous risk from many perspectives. We have already seen tremendous strains growing between the Sunni and Shia groups within Iraq, and that had to do in large part with the way that the formation of the government proceeded after the election in 2010, and the way that the Obama administration chose to play no meaningful role in attempting to broker and agreement, the formation of that government, that would be acceptable. But we’re also seeing a rise in concern among the Kurds about tensions in the south, their own tensions with the Arabs. And questions will surely arise about the desirability of pushing again for some kind of Kurdish secession or independent Kurdistan. In other words, I think there’s a real possibility that this decision can accelerate the descent of Iraq back into the kind of chaos from which it emerged.

HH: Fred Kagan, I’m talking with Fred Kagan, who is the resident scholar and director of the AEI Critical Threats Project. Anyone who read George Bush’s Decision Points, or any of the memoirs of the war, know that Fred Kagan was central to the crafting of the success there. And we’re now analyzing what is an American retreat every bit as sinister, I think, as some of the retreats that took place in the face of rising German power in the 30s. And Fred, is that alarmist?

FK: Well, I think there’s a larger pattern here of American retreatism and declinism, if you will, and a desire to turn inward in the United States and being led now, very actively, by the President. And that’s extremely distressing, because the world is becoming a steadily more dangerous place. I think that it’s very clear that the Iranians are moving rapidly forward toward being able to field a nuclear weapon. We’ve just revealed this indication of an Iranian determination to conduct attacks directly on the American homeland. But in addition to that, we have a growing threat of al Qaeda organizations in Yemen, a civil war in Somalia that’s now involving other regional states, Pakistan, every part of which is a sort of a disaster that is terrifying in one way or another. A lot of very bad things going on, and a lot of things that are threats to the United States, one way or another. And if at this time in history, worried by our own internal economic concerns, we turn inward, then yes, we run a real risk of repeating the mistakes of France, Great Britain and the United States in the end of war period, and turning inward just at the moment when we most need to pay attention to threats emerging elsewhere.

HH: Now Fred Kagan, is it possible this is just a negotiation ploy by one side or the other? Or does this have the air of finality about it because the President announced it?

FK: Well, it’s hard to imagine that this is a negotiating ploy. Certainly, since the President not only announced this, but also announced that this was his decision with Prime Minister Maliki, that they had arrived at a joint…I mean, no, I don’t think this is a negotiating ploy.

HH: All right, in terms of CentCom and your many contacts, I’m sure everyone will salute the Commander-In-Chief, and there will be no formal criticism of the decision. But what was the hope for result within the military as you understand it, Fred, vis-à-vis our long term relationship with Iraq?

FK: Well, I have no direct insights into that, but I know what has been reported in the media is that General Austin, after having conducted a number of studies of this, had concluded that we needed 14,000, actually, I think he initially concluded we needed more than 20,000 troops to achieve the conditions that President Obama had articulated in his February, 2009 speech announcing the strategy that included a stable, self-reliant Iraq, with…a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq with a certain form of government. And he, General Austin, had, according to media reports, concluded that we needed upwards of 20,000 troops to accomplish that. I think that’s right. But this goes beyond a question of generalship, because this, what the President has just announced is a fundamental change in American policy.

HH: Yes.

FK: …in the region. And this is the thing, it’s a little bit alarming that he’s not even had the honesty to do that explicitly, but instead, both in his speech and in the press conference that followed by Dennis McDonough, there is an attempt to portray this decision to retreat under fire as the objective all along, that this is all that we were every trying to do, and that this was always the strategy from the outset. And that’s even more worrisome, because in fact, what the President has done is to announce the Obama doctrine. And the Obama doctrine is American retreat. And it’s interesting…

HH: I watched Deputy National Security Advisor McDonough, and his body language was as uncomfortable as any…is there opposition within the administration, Fred Kagan, to the cut and run?

FK: I have no idea. I have no idea.

HH: What about…

FK: But he did look uncomfortable, because he was attempting to articulate a strategy that made no sense.

HH: What about Prime Minister Maliki? I believe you’ve met with him on many occasions. I know that he used to teleconference with President Bush. I know he used to be someone in whom Americans reposed some confidence. And indeed, he struck out at the Sadrists in the south of Iraq when he needed to. What has happened?

FK: Well, we’ve long…it’s been a long time since we’ve had a lot of confidence in Maliki. And one of the problems that we have, and honestly, it’s one of the opportunities that this administration has thrown away, was an opportunity to try to shape the emergence of a new Maliki government, or possibly a government without Maliki, which would have been even better, so that you could have something approaching the kind of democracy in Iraq that millions around the Arab world are now protesting for. But unfortunately, Maliki has been taking Iraq back in the direction of a more authoritarian state. And this is something that we should be very concerned about. Instead, we have now the President congratulating Maliki on his sovereignty, in other words, on his ability to complete the creation of a new authoritarian state in Iraq.

HH: A couple of last questions, Fred, in terms of the impact on the Syrian uprising. There was speculation, again on CNN today, that Maliki will align himself with Assad and with Tehran in a sort of unity of interest of strongmen. Do you think that’s happening?

FK: I think you’ve got a very complicated relationship, because you have this Shia minority government in Syria, which is tightly aligned with Iran, and the Iranians want to support it. And Maliki will be drawn in that direction anyway. So yes, I would expect to see that. I don’t know if it’s an alignment of strongmen, per se. I don’t think Maliki’s in that league, yet. But I do think that it’s an alignment that does not suit the United States, and it does not suit the interests of the people of the region, either.

HH: And last question, with a minute left, what did the Taliban conclude from this, Fred Kagan?

FK: I think all of our enemies will conclude from this that pressure on us and waiting us out is the way to go. And that’s been the message for a long time, and it’s something that we started to reverse with President Bush’s decision to fight for success in Iraq, and honestly continued with President Obama’s decision initially to reinforce in Afghanistan. But now, we will reinforce the narrative that we will ultimately leave. It will embolden our enemies.

HH: Fred Kagan of AEI, thanks for spending time on short notice with us on a very momentous day, not a good one, in American foreign policy.

End of interview.

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