So we’re supposed to think that Barack Obama has foreign-policy gravitas on the basis of his trip to the Middle East. And the senator seemed to get some PR help from no less a figure than Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who over the weekend was quoted by the German magazine Der Spiegel as saying: “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”
An Iraqi-government spokesman subsequently claimed that Maliki’s remarks had been “misunderstood and mistranslated”; the New York Times offered its own translation of the interview audiotape (provided to it by the German magazine), and this translation seemed to indicate that Der Spiegel had gotten it pretty much right; and that was supposedly that.
But what does the flap tell us about Iraq, and about Obama’s judgment?
The first thing to note is how quickly the Iraqi government sought to distance itself from Maliki’s statement. Set aside for a moment the question of whether Maliki was misquoted; his government wanted the world to conclude that he had been — and, by extension, that he had not endorsed Barack Obama’s strategic view. What is easy to forget is that Maliki is a politician with a constituency to please, and a not-insignificant part of that constituency is susceptible to denunciations of “American occupation.” If Maliki, the procedural-democracy man, is to keep their loyalties away from darker figures (see al-Sadr, Moqtada), he will occasionally have to say what they want to hear. And if he thinks an Obama presidency is likely, he may wish to cover his bases in advance. What is here most revealing of the Iraqi government’s perceptions of its security interests is that it ran as fast as it could from Maliki’s comment once an American audience took that comment the wrong way. The considered judgment seems to be: Let’s not help Obama win.
Second, there is no question as to whether there will be a troop drawdown in coming months. In fact, the drawdown has already begun: Five brigades are on their way out of Iraq, and are able to leave only because of security gains that accompanied Gen. David Petraeus’s surge strategy. Both the Bush administration and the Iraqi government agree that the status-of-forces-agreement currently under negotiation will include broad goals as to the reduction of force levels; and both sides also agree that these goals will be flexible, allowing for changes of plan based on conditions on the ground. Come to think of it, that’s what Barack Obama sometimes advocates, too: For all his talk of 16 months, he’s careful to add the caveat that he will make “tactical adjustments” based on security conditions and the advice of the U.S. military commanders who are overseeing the war.
It is indeed curious to hear the let’s-withdraw-now candidate moderating his positions in a way that brings them closer to those of the evil warmongers he wants to deliver us from. Is there an explanation? Is the moon in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars?
There is an explanation, and it’s that the surge worked. Had it not brought the security improvements it did bring, reducing force levels would not now be a consensus position.
Which brings us to our third point: that Barack Obama opposed the surge at its inception, and said this week that, knowing what he knows now, he’d oppose it again. If he is being sincere in that doggedness, then it would be hard to imagine a more perfect example of how the sainted unifier’s hippie weltanschauung blinds him to reality. And if his saying that he would oppose the surge again is itself a “tactical adjustment,” a concession to his base, it nonetheless remains true that Obama has been proved wrong about a vital strategic question of the war — and that where he was wrong, McCain was right.
That the surge worked does not mean the war is won, and there are sure to be challenges ahead. But the question now is not one of whether to reduce our presence in Iraq, but of how to do so in a way that maintains the strategic gains the surge has wrought. Whatever the answer, it will require a commander-in-chief with sound judgment. And we have more reason than we did a week ago to think that Barack Obama is not that man.