Back in December, during the transition but before Obama was sworn in, General Odierno was publicly saying that he thought the US/Iraq agreement on withdrawal was ignorable. In his view, US troops should stay in Iraq's cities past the summer 2009 deadline and the 2011 final withdrawal date should be flexible. A few days later the Three Amigos - McCain, Lieberman and Graham - threw their weight behind Odierno in a WaPo op-ed by describing him, rather than Commander-In-Chief Obama, as "the person whose judgment should matter most in determining how fast and how deep a drawdown can be ordered responsibly." Suitably emboldened, Odierno announced that he was the Deciderer: "any decision on force structure here in Iraq will be made by me," and that there would be no substantial drawdown of troops from Iraq until he was ready to agree it. Odierno got backing from Gates, Ambassador Crocker, Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus in the dying days of the Bush administration too, with all making statements suggesting that the SOFA wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.
Now that President Obama in in the Oval Office, Odierno is still suggesting publicly that Obama's campaign promise of a 16 month withdrawal - one that would be in advance of the SOFA requirements and has been endorsed by primeminister Maliki of Iraq - isn't Obama administration policy because he's the Deciderer, not Obama. And he still apparently has a lot of backing among the Bush-appointed senior cadre at the Pentagon and, of course, the hawkish foreign policy elite who were always just fine with Bush's invasion of Iraq and only got upset when Bush so cack-handely mismanaged the occupation.
The military/VSP plan, however, is just the same old imperialist hubris re-packaged for a new administration. It ignores any Iraqi say in the matter and ignores any impact that arrogance might have on Iraqi stability in favor of yet more Friedman Units of occupation. Marc Lynch:
Odierno's intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer -- which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops. It sends the wrong messages to Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi population. It would badly hurt Obama's credibility in the region and with Iraqis, who will see his most important public commitment fall by the wayside. And it would lose the unique window of opportunity offered by the transition to signal real change.
This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay. Given the very catalog of Iraqi political fissures and emerging conflicts that Odierno cites as reason to stay, there is little reason to think that conditions will be so much more stable at the end of this proposed year of caution. At that point the exact same conversation will ensue about why drawdowns are imprudent at this time -- and does anybody believe that the people currently calling for prudence and high troop levels will suddenly reverse themselves a year from now when conditions look much the same as they do now?
And it isn't just a year: senior Iraqi officials have suggested that the national elections, which Odierno suggests as the point when drawdowns might begin, may well not be held until March 2010. I don't think that 16 months is a sacred number. But what Odierno is proposing is no significant drawdowns for 14 months, followed by another period of wrangling. This could ironically make the "rush for the exits" that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely -- whether or not it leads to the failure of the SOFA referendum.
If Obama is serious about sticking to the SOFA with his Iraqi allies - indeed, if he is serious about being CinC rather than letting the Pentagon tail wag the Presidential dog - then he needs to send a clear message. That message could be most clearly sent by sacking Odierno. Let rightwing blatherers whine all they want about "alienating the military". The military shouldn't set US foreign policy, it should follow the orders of civilian authority.