Politics & Policy

Barack Obama & the Democratic Affliction

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse: I think it takes pressure off the Iraqis to arrive at the sort of political accommodation that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there. … And the problem is the Iraqis, I think, take that message to mean that, no matter how little they are compromising with each other, Americans are still going to be present. As long as we are not willing to provide any consequences to failure for them to arrive at a political compromise, we’re going to continue to see the sort of sectarian bloodshed that’s been evident over the last several months.

— Barack Obama, January 2007, in response to President Bush’s speech announcing the surge.

It’s bizarre to see an American political party so afflicted by American military success. The Democrats have been laboring to look the other way from the security gains forged by the troop surge in Iraq, but now the progress is so widely acknowledged that they have had to change tack. Sen. Obama’s advisers have taken to saying that the Illinois senator knew all along the surge would improve security, an obvious falsehood (see the quote above). Old Cold Warriors will recall this trick from the end of the Soviet Union — as soon as we had won the Cold War, opponents of our winning efforts said they had favored it all along.

We haven’t won the Iraq war, of course, which is why the debate over it is so consequential. Obama took to the pages of the New York Times Monday to explain, “My Plan for Iraq.” He reiterated his support for a 16-month pullout. We think — and certainly hope — that somewhere deep inside Obama realizes how unworkable and risky this timeline would be. A report by Martha Raddatz of ABC News last week cited U.S. commanders to the effect that the plan might not even be logistically possible. In recent weeks, Obama has given signals that he wants to be able to wiggle out of the 16-month deadline. He famously talked of “refining” his plan earlier in the month, and his chief strategist David Axelrod told CNN Obama’s plan was for “a phased withdrawal, with benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet, that called for strategic pauses, based on the progress on these benchmarks and advice on the commanders on the ground.”

This was getting dangerously close to another “flip-flop,” this time on an issue that was central to Obama’s primary campaign and his political identity. So Obama reiterated his support Monday for his 16-month plan, subject only to “tactical adjustments.” He acknowledges the level of violence has been reduced, but grudgingly and while arguing (unpersuasively) that the reasons for his original opposition are still valid. Not only have we controlled the sectarian violence in Iraq, it has been key to our campaign against al-Qaeda (which thrived in an atmosphere of sectarian hatred and chaos) and has created the conditions for political progress. In other words, the theory of the surge has proven correct and Democrats who opposed it were wrong about it in all key respects.

Remember when the Democrats said the Iraqis weren’t meeting the political benchmarks? Now, the Iraqis have meet roughly 15 out of 18, even though Obama still leans on the tired trope that the Iraqis are failing politically. Remember when the Democrats said the Iraq war was a terrorist recruiting tool? Now, the New York Times reports that foreign fighters are no longer flocking to Iraq. The prospect of getting killed in an unpopular cause in Iraq isn’t so appealing. The backdrop for all this is the fact that Obama supported a plan — for a pullout of all combat troops by March 2008 — that would have lost the war, giving al-Qaeda a huge strategic victory. And Obama brags about his foreign policy “judgment”?

Obama says he was right to oppose the surge because the Afghan war has been deteriorating. Obama supports sending two combat brigades to Afghanistan. (It’s almost as if he thinks increased numbers of troops can help fight a counterinsurgency.) But there’s no need to pull all 15 combat brigades out of Iraq to send two to Afghanistan. One of the reasons that violence has been increasing in Afghanistan is that militants have a safe-haven in Pakistan. If Obama has a plausible answer to that problem, we’d like to hear it, but it surely has very little to do with troop levels in Iraq. Besides, Obama and the Democrats can never explain their strange geographical exemption for al-Qaeda, which they aren’t so exercised about as long as it is in Iraq, a resource-rich country at the center of the Arab world.

In his Times piece, Obama fastens on a recent statement by Nouri al-Maliki favoring a withdrawal. Maliki made the remark — which his aides actually edited into a transcript — in comments about negotiations over a status-of-forces agreement with the U.S. Maliki clearly had a domestic Iraqi audience in mind; he wants cover with his Sadrist flank. Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top political adviser to Maliki, added that a withdrawal would have to be conditions-based. Indeed, no responsible actor in the Iraq government believes Obama’s 16-month timeline is at all realistic, which is why Iraqi officials are desperately rooting for McCain to win in November. In a statement more in accord with reality, Maliki’s defense minister has said Iraqis will be ready to handle internal security on their own in 2012 and external security by 2020.

Another Obama talking point is that General James Dubik, who until recently led the training of Iraqi troops, said in a congressional hearing that our job would be done in the middle of next year. Gen. Dubik said it under questioning by Rep. Ike Skelton, who kept demanding that he put an “X” on a calendar for when Iraqi troops would be ready. But Gen. Dubik repeatedly said that he couldn’t put an “X” on a calendar, and in his introductory remarks struck an appropriately cautious note: “The Iraqi security forces are still reliant on our enablers. Their training is basic. Their leader shortages still exist, and distribution of leaders is uneven. There are still pockets of sectarianism. And last, the problems of rapid growth that any nation would face are evidenced in the Iraqi security forces….From my standpoint, we should not underestimate the difficulty of the task remaining. The successes of the past year plus are significant, are dramatic, but can be reversed, and they can be stymied.”

For all the progress in Iraq, al-Qaeda hasn’t gone away and neither has Iran. Both are trying to adjust and exploit new vulnerabilities, which are likelier to exist the fewer U.S. troops are in Iraq. While the Right must resist Democratic defeatism, it can’t give into a triumphialism about the surge either. Much work remains to be done in Iraq, including ensuring the fundamental fairness of the elections later this year so all factions will accept their outcome. As we learned with the harrowing experience prior to the surge, nothing is so expensive as trying to do the Iraq war on the cheap.

Obama doesn’t understand this, or doesn’t appear to care if he does. He has taken to saying recently that he would give the military a new mission — to end the war. Not to win, not even to leave with honor, but simply to get out. The only thing more disgraceful than his dishonest advocacy of this position as a candidate would be if he actually implemented it as president.

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