[Marxism] A skunk's advice to Obama on Iraq

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 7 07:40:47 MDT 2008

Obama’s Iraq Problem
by George Packer July 7, 2008

In February, 2007, when Barack Obama declared that he was running for 
President, violence in Iraq had reached apocalyptic levels, and he based 
his candidacy, in part, on a bold promise to begin a rapid withdrawal of 
American forces upon taking office. At the time, this pledge represented 
conventional thinking among Democrats and was guaranteed to play well 
with primary voters. But in the year and a half since then two 
improbable, though not unforeseeable, events have occurred: Obama has 
won the Democratic nomination, and Iraq, despite myriad crises, has 
begun to stabilize. With the general election four months away, Obama’s 
rhetoric on the topic now seems outdated and out of touch, and the 
nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue 
that did so much to bring him this far.

Obama’s plan, which was formally laid out last September, called for the 
remaining combat brigades to be pulled out at a brisk pace of about one 
per month, along with a strategic shift of resources and attention away 
from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. At that rate, all combat troops would 
be withdrawn in sixteen months. In hindsight, it was a mistake—an 
understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential 
politics today—for Obama to offer such a specific timetable. In matters 
of foreign policy, flexibility is a President’s primary defense against 
surprise. At the start of 2007, no one in Baghdad would have predicted 
that blood-soaked neighborhoods would begin returning to life within a 
year. The improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of 
importance, to President Bush’s surge, the change in military strategy 
under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al 
Qaeda, the Sadr militia’s unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical 
luck that brought them all together at the same moment. With the level 
of violence down, the Iraqi government and Army have begun to show signs 
of functioning in less sectarian ways. These developments may be 
temporary or cyclical; predicting the future in Iraq has been a losing 
game. Indeed, it was President Bush’s folly to ignore for years the 
shifting realities on the ground.

Obama, whatever the idealistic yearnings of his admirers, has turned out 
to be a cold-eyed, shrewd politician. The same pragmatism that prompted 
him last month to forgo public financing of his campaign will surely 
lead him, if he becomes President, to recalibrate his stance on Iraq. He 
doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could 
revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, reënergize the Sunni 
insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia’s recent 
losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state 
of collapse. The question is whether Obama will publicly change course 
before November. So far, he has offered nothing more concrete than this: 
“We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.”

Obama’s advisers have been more forthcoming. Samantha Power, before she 
resigned from the campaign for making an indiscreet remark about Hillary 
Clinton, told the BBC, “He will, of course, not rely upon some plan that 
he’s crafted as a Presidential candidate or a U.S. senator. He will rely 
upon a plan—an operational plan—that he pulls together in consultation 
with people who are on the ground.” Last month, the Center for a New 
American Security, which has become something like Obama’s 
foreign-policy think tank, released a report that argued against a 
timetable for withdrawal, regardless of the state of the war, and in 
favor of “conditional engagement,” declaring, “Under this strategy, the 
United States would not withdraw its forces based on a firm unilateral 
schedule. Rather, the time horizon for redeployment would be negotiated 
with the Iraqi government and nested within a more assertive approach to 
regional diplomacy. The United States would make it clear that Iraq and 
America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in 
Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi 
government and build its security and governance capacity over the long 
term, but only so long as Iraqis continue to make meaningful political 
progress.” It’s impossible to know if this persuasive document mirrors 
Obama’s current thinking, but here’s a clue: it was co-written by one of 
his Iraq advisers, Colin Kahl.

A “conditional engagement” policy is a much better fit for the present 
situation in Iraq. It would keep the heat on Iraqi politicians, whose 
willingness to reach compromise on issues like oil revenues, provincial 
elections, de-Baathification, and power sharing still lags well behind 
the government’s recent military successes. It would allow for a phased 
withdrawal of most troops, depending on political progress and on the 
performance of the Iraqi Army. This, in turn, would ease the pressure on 
the American military and answer the rightful disenchantment in American 
public opinion. There will be no such thing as victory in Iraq, but the 
next President, if he remains nimble, may be able to keep the damage 
under control.

The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas 
in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political 
class. Accordingly, Obama, on the night that he proclaimed himself the 
nominee, in St. Paul, made a familiar declaration: “Start leaving we 
must. It’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.” His 
supporters claim that the polls are with Obama, that war fatigue will 
make Iraq a political winner for him in November. Yet, as exhausted as 
the public is with the war, a candidate who seems heedless of progress 
in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism, which John 
McCain’s campaign will connect to its broader theme of Obama’s 
inexperience in and weakness on national security. The relative success 
of the surge is one of the few issues going McCain’s way; we’ll be 
hearing about it more and more between now and November, and it might 
sway some centrist voters who have doubts about Obama.

Obama has shown, with his speech on race, that he has a talent for 
candor. One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed 
on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, “That was always a goal, 
not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don’t close my eyes—I 
adapt.” He could detail in his speeches the functions that American 
troops and diplomats can continue to perform even as our primary combat 
role recedes: training and advising, counterterrorism, brokering deals 
among Iraqi factions, checking their expansionist impulses, opening 
talks with our enemies in the region. He could promise to negotiate all 
this with Iraqi leaders, emphasizing the difference between a 
relationship that respects the wishes of the public in both countries 
and one in which Iraqis are coerced into coöperation. If Obama truly 
wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the 
past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been 
fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an 
honorable way to end. ?

More information about the Marxism mailing list