Five months ago, I returned to Iraq as an embedded journalist, some 18 months after I had completed a combat tour there. It was a worthwhile trip. I returned to Iraq to cover the progress the U.S. military had been making on the ground since the surge had begun. Mainstream-media coverage of the war had largely ignored the counterinsurgency’s success, rehearsing outdated notions of the conditions there. You could say I made the long trip to the front to cover an exposed domestic flank of American public opinion.
My fact-finding at the highest levels of strategic command and the lowest level of tactical implementation brought back into view the intricacies of the Iraq experience. What seems like a black-and-white situation on op-ed pages and in TV talking points in the United States is revealed as complex grayscale in Iraq.
So keeping one’s ear to the ground and eye on the facts in Iraq is exceedingly important. It takes real effort to cut through the spin and punditry; and if anyone spends too much time away, tempting platitudes like “we’ve already won” or “withdrawal immediately” creep into the lexicon, complicating one’s ability to tailor their positions to reality, rather than ideology.
Thus, trips to Iraq tend to be enlightening experiences — full of competing emotions, as long-held assumptions, good and bad, clash with self-evident realities on the ground. Any serious student of warfare, particularly of counterinsurgency, will know that every battlefield is fluid, and information that is relevant one day may be deceiving the next.
On Monday, Senator Obama finally had his wingtips on the ground in Iraq, to at last meet with U.S. brass and Iraqi leaders and get his dose of reality. He met with commanders on the ground who told him — as they recently told Fox News Sunday and the New York Times — that the timeline for withdrawal that Obama supports would be disastrous, both for the prospects of success in Iraq, and for strategic stability in the region.
Obama heard from Iraqi leaders, Maliki included, who told him the same thing — and who brandished their newfound reconciliation dramatically on Saturday, when the largest Sunni block rejoined the Iraqi parliament and cabinet.
And Obama heard from Iraqi and U.S. troops and from the citizens of Iraq who have all witnessed al-Qaeda’s attempts — both through their extremist rhetoric and maniacal deeds — to make Iraq the central front in their war against the West.
Despite these facts — however the mainstream media chooses to spin them — the operative question is: Will any of this matter to Obama?
I fear it won’t. He’s already shown that his version of fact-finding is to lay out an Iraq plan before going there. And while he conceded yesterday that there has been “enormous improvement” in security, Obama remains unwilling to concede change-I-can-believe-in on his three main Iraq tenets: timelines, political progress, and Iraq as a central front.
The statement he released after touching down in-country reiterates his misguided support for “a clear date” for withdrawal, his confused assertion that “political reconciliation continues to lag,” and his stubborn insistence that America must “refocus” our efforts in Afghanistan. Obama went so far as to tell an interviewer that he would oppose the surge again, despite the fact that the strategy that has saved countless American and Iraqi lives.
None of this is surprising. An Obama concession on these points would mean political damage-control for weeks. Still, I would like to be believe that Sen. Obama is capable of recognizing — and adapting his views on — the changed conditions in Iraq he is now seeing for the first time. A wartime posture demands this. But I doubt we’ll ever see it.
The sad reality of this trip is that Sen. Obama has now left Iraq more cemented in his ill-advised positions than ever before. He was willing to throw scraps to commanders and troops (“good job, guys”) but sought every opportunity to confirm that his policy views — which are as outdated as cassette tapes — had not changed.
The next question, then, is: Who will fact-check the fact-finder? Sen. Obama managed to praise the surge (which he fervently opposed), all the while calling for timelines, degrading Iraqi leaders, and pretending that al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn’t exist.
Contrast this with John McCain. Based on his visits to Iraq before the surge, he had the prescience to call for a new strategy and more troops. And despite running for president, he continued to make fact-finding trips to Iraq after the surge, and reported the success of the surge before anyone else. Sen. McCain went to Iraq to gather information that would inform his policy positions — not to “put lipstick on a pig,” as General Petraeus is apt to say.
In the days ahead, additional information will be made public on what General Petraeus and Senator Obama discussed. We’ll see if Obama’s statements in the weeks and months ahead show whether his ideological approach to the Iraq war has been disturbed by any single fact on the ground.
— Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is chairman of Vets for Freedom.