Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Can Obama cope with success in Iraq?

John McCain would not be where is if the surge had not led to real improvements in security, and possibly the beginnings of real political rapprochement, in Iraq. It makes sense that Republican primary voters would be more responsive to signs of progress than would the electorate as a whole. A strong majority of Americans still say that the war was a mistake, and a strong majority still favor swift withdrawal. But perceptions may lag a changing reality by several months. If conditions in Iraq continue to improve between now and November, McCain may reap a rich harvest.

Say what you like about McCain's repeated and egregious misstatements of foreign policy fact (Iran aiding al Qaeda, troop levels down to pre-surge levels, we've fruitlessly negotiated with Iran for decades, etc. etc.), his strategic straitjacket (every troublesome dictator is Hitler; every Democratic leader from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain; McCain is Churchill-in-waiting), his over-reliance on force and coercion (advocating a hyper-aggressive stance against North Korea in 1999, 2002 and 2006; advocating force against Saddam since 1998), his strategic incoherence (assembling a League of Democracies, aka a permanent 'coalition of the willing,' that would isolate China and Russia and undercut the UN). As wrong as he was in cheerleading our entry into Iraq, he may have been equally right about the potential of the surge (though we'll never know what the effect of following the Iraq Study Group blueprint would have been).

Maliki's latest military successes in Basra, Sadr City and possibly now in Mosul, and Sadr's latest rope-a-dope should make unbiased observers at the very least hesitate to assert that the apparent progress is all a bridge to nowhere. And from a political point of view, serially denigrating sign after sign of progress is not a good place to be.

All of which is to say that a McCain attack like this one, delivered yesterday in Arlington to AIPAC, packs a force to be reckoned with:

Another matter of great importance to the security of both America and Israel is Iraq. You would never know from listening to those who are still caught up in angry arguments over yesterday's options, but our troops in Iraq have made hard-won progress under General Petraeus' new strategy. And Iraqi political leaders have moved ahead - slowly and insufficiently, but forward nonetheless. Sectarian violence declined dramatically, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in the fight against al Qaeda, and Shia extremist militias no longer control Basra - the Maliki government and its forces are in charge. Al Qaeda terrorists are on the run, and our troops are going to make sure they never come back.

It's worth recalling that America's progress in Iraq is the direct result of the new strategy that Senator Obama opposed. It was the strategy he predicted would fail, when he voted cut off funds for our forces in Iraq. He now says he intends to withdraw combat troops from Iraq - one to two brigades per month until they are all removed. He will do so regardless of the conditions in Iraq, regardless of the consequences for our national security, regardless of Israel's security, and in disregard of the best advice of our commanders on the ground.

This course would surely result in a catastrophe. If our troops are ordered to make a forced retreat, we risk all-out civil war, genocide, and a failed state in the heart of the Middle East. Al Qaeda terrorists would rejoice in the defeat of the United States. Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel, and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq's neighbors, including an emboldened Iran. We must not let this happen. We must not leave the region to suffer chaos, terrorist violence and a wider war.
Andrew Sullivan, reflecting on the Maliki government's recent gains, emphasizes the policy challenge but does not look at the political challenge that those gains pose for Obama:
The trap Obama must not be caught in is one of excessive pessimism. Conditions now favor expeditious withdrawal more than they did only a few months ago. But the manner of withdrawal, its pace, and its concomitant diplomacy now require a different cast, and may require an even different one next February and March. None of this means that this war was not a mistake; it does suggest it need not in the medium term be a catastrophe. Petraeus deserves the lion's share of the credit; luck and time and the self-defeating nihilism of the Jihadists have helped. But Bush and McCain equally merit points for pursuing the surge, even though the metrics pointed to failure. Obama needs to capitalize on these gains, not dismiss them.
The hard task of "capitalizing on those gains" will be the unquestioned business of the next president. What's more problematic for Obama is to position himself during the campaign to be able to do that -- and to maintain credibility through the campaign if progress in Iraq continues. As Sullivan suggests, Obama in office may plausibly be able to maintain or even further progress in Iraq by steadily drawing down troops (and in fact, McCain has responded to the political pressure generated by his "100 years statement"to indicate that he will look for opportunities to do the same). What's hard is for Obama to grant now that progress in Iraq is not all illusory or temporary, that the surge was at least a major catalyst of that progress, that fostering stability in Iraq is a necessary goal, and that doing so may conflict at times with unbroken troop withdrawal. He has to find a way to acknowledge during the campaign what Samantha Powers spilled off-message: that "listening to the generals" may affect strategy as well as tactics.

The toxic part, politically, is that McCain's claim that "America's progress in Iraq is the direct result of the new strategy that Senator Obama opposed" has real bite, and Obama may need to find a way to acknowledge its partial truth. The elements of framing such an acknowledgment might include asserting that a) drawing down the U.S. troop presence remains crucial to furthering the Iraqi government's sovereignty, to the health of our armed forces, and to advancing our core strategic needs elsewhere, e.g. Afghanistan; 2) the surge's success is welcome but cannot be sustained in a vaccuum; building on gains requires the kind of concerted multi-front diplomatic effort proposed by the Iraq study group, and also requires a visibly shrinking U.S. presence; 3) the surge was means to an end of Iraqi self-sufficiency; its gains cannot be sustained with 'more of the same.'

There is at least a symmetry in the gravitational pull of both candidates toward the center. McCain needs to walk back his enthusiasm for an unending troop presence, and Obama needs qualify his commitment to a rigid withdrawal timetable. McCain needs to answer for enabling and cheer-leading a war that Americans will always regard as a mistake, , and Obama may ultimately be challenged to explain his rooted opposition to the surge.

UPDATE: The New Yorker's George Packer has weighed in with a blueprint for Obama adjusting his position on troop withdrawal.

1 comment:

  1. Two years ago, when violence was rampant, the argument that the American troops were all that prevented civil war made sense. Today, with violence down to 2003 levels, with the government security forces 400,000+ strong, and with demonstrated effectiveness in Basra and Sadr City, the argument that American troops prevent Civil War does not hold water.

    A good case could be made that an American presence needed to be maintained in 2006. In 2008 such a case is much harder, as the disagreements over the status of forces accord indicate. If Iraq becomes even more calm, if the Iraqi government demonstrates even more capability, the *reason* for the continued presence of American troops will become increasingly questioned by Iraqis. Why do the Americans need to stay, since things are well-in-hand?

    With McCain talking about how it is OK to stay in Iraq for 50 years, if there are no casualties Iraqis have to ask if there are no casualties, then there must be no fighting, no danger, and if there is no danger, then why would troops be necessary?

    What I am getting at is a continued American presence in spite of reductions in violence is going to look like colonization to Iraqis. And that is not a good thing for the American troops.

    Thus, the reduction in violence is the best sort of argument for withdrawal. Only if we withdraw and the violence does not return can we win. If we stay, then we lose, because you cannot win a war unless you first have *ended* it.

    It seems to me that if Obama were elected and withdrew the troops he would simply harvest the victory the surge made possible. On the other hand if McCain were elected the troops would stay and we would be denied victory.

    It is the nature of conflicts like this for withdrawal to always look the most rational. This is because the conflict was not won quickly. Usually the side who starts a war based upon an erroneous belief of a quick victory loses the war (e.g. France in the Franco-Prussian war).