President Barack Obama's administration has disproved the notion that a large military footprint helps fight terrorism and, following the end of the Iraq war, is now returning the United States to a pre-1990 military level in the Persian Gulf, according to a White House official.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a group of supporters on a private conference call Wednesday that the entire idea of deploying large numbers of troops in the region, which has been U.S. policy since the Gulf War in 1990, is now over.
"The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It's certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops, that we've seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down."
Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that's just not the case.
"I don't think we're looking to reallocate our military footprint in any significant way from Iraq. They won't be reallocated to other countries in the region in any substantial numbers," he said.
Rhodes explained that the scaling back of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf was part of the administration's strategy to "demilitarize" U.S. foreign policy and shift to an approach that favored counter-terrorism tactics. He also said the end of the war in Iraq -- and eventually the war in Afghanistan -- proved that large military deployments are not necessary to deny terrorists safe haven in foreign countries.
"The argument several years ago... was that you needed to have a very large U.S. military footprint so that you could fight the terrorists ‘over there,' so they wouldn't come here. But we've demonstrated the opposite, that you don't need to have a large U.S. military footprint in these countries, that you can shrink them and focus on al Qaeda in a far more specific way... and still very much accomplish your national security goals," said Rhodes.
"That allows us in many respects to demilitarize elements of our foreign policy and establish more normal relationships," he added. "That's our posture in the region and its far more in line with where we were before 1990."
Rhodes also framed the end of the Iraq war as a fulfillment of an Obama campaign promise.
"President Obama has kept a core promise of his to the American people. He opposed the war in Iraq as a candidate for Senate in 2002, before it started. He put forward a plan to end the war as a senator and promised to end the war as a candidate. And now we can definitively say he has kept that promise as president," said Rhodes. "America is safer and stronger because of the way we ended the war in Iraq."
One terrorist who will remain "over there" is Ali Musa Daqduq, who U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander. Daqduq has been imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq because he led a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007.
The White House told the New York Times on Friday that the United States had transferred Daqduq to Iraqi custody. 21 senators had drafted a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
"Failure to transfer Daqduq to Guantanamo Bay or another American military-controlled detention facility outside the United States before December 31st will result in his transfer to Iraqi authorities, potential release to Iran and eventual return to the battlefield," the senators wrote in the letter, which was never sent because the administration handed over Daqduq first.
"Daqduq's Iranian paymasters would like nothing more than to see him transferred to Iraqi custody where they could effectively pressure for his escape or release. We truly hope you will not let that happen."
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times on Friday, "We have sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.