Politics & Policy

Change He Should Believe In

Sen. Obama needs to recognize the improved situation in Iraq.

Barack Obama for years accused President Bush of stubbornly refusing to acknowledge changing realities in Iraq. Today, however, Sen. Obama is the stubborn one. In his failure to recognize the substantial progress that has occurred in Iraq, Obama undercuts several of the most compelling themes of his campaign.

In May 2008, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq was the lowest since the beginning of the war.Meanwhile, Sunni Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates are finally sending ambassadors to Baghdad; the Iraqi army has proven that it is capable of defeating Shia militias in battle; and oil output has risen to its highest level since early 2003. Additionally, in an important sign that Iraq’s political system is functioning, the country’s parliament recently passed a comprehensive law against oil smuggling that will help increase the Iraqi government’s revenues from the sale of oil.

Sen. Obama has billed himself as a truth-telling leader who is above partisan politics and who will do what is right even when politically inconvenient. That kind of leader would adapt his rhetoric to reflect the successes achieved in Iraq. He would become a responsible voice within his party by challenging his constituents to embrace progress in Iraq. Using his considerable influence to rein in the reflexive and poisonous antiwar rhetoric that has become the Democratic party’s standard rallying cry against Republicans, he would seek to alleviate the bitter divisions that plague our country.

Unfortunately, Sen. Obama has not been that kind of candidate. Instead, he has chosen the far easier path of exploiting the existing currents of public opinion for political gain. In his speeches, he downplays the gains achieved through the surge and dismisses as “spin” all evidence of progress, all the while repeating his call for a withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops within sixteen months of becoming president, no matter the conditions on the ground. By so doing, he is not being honest and he is not rising above partisan politics; indeed, he is failing to be a leader in any meaningful sense.

Even worse, Sen. Obama’s rhetoric on the Iraq war is beginning to jeopardize his stated goal of repairing alliances that he claims are in tatters. Obama seems to believe that a troop pullout would be welcomed by our allies and would help restore America’s standing in the world — a belief that is likely premised on the logical fallacy that because many of our allies were displeased when we entered Iraq, they would now support our departure.

But our friends in the Middle East — including Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Qatar — are in fact strongly opposed to a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces. Leaders in those countries understand what Obama will not admit: that the recent gains we have so painstakingly achieved could unravel if the United States withdraws. On a recent trip to the region, I had the opportunity to sit down with several high-ranking government officials. They told me that a U.S. troop pullout would be extremely destabilizing for the entire region and would embolden Iran, the chief threat to our allies in the area. One official went so far as to tell me that he prays nightly that Obama’s statements about Iraq amount to nothing more than campaign rhetoric.

Taking account of new realities, our allies have recalibrated their interests. Sen. Obama’s Iraq policy must now undergo a similar recalibration. If he continues to talk of rapid withdrawal and deny the progress we have made, he risks doing a serious disservice to his own reputation at home, and to our country’s reputation abroad.

– Alexander Benard, a recent graduate of Stanford Law School, has interned at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


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