THE INITIAL MEDIA coverage of Barack Obama's visit to Iraq suggested that the Democratic candidate found agreement with his plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces on a 16-month timetable. So it seems worthwhile to point out that, by Mr. Obama's own account, neither U.S. commanders nor Iraq's principal political leaders actually support his strategy.And finally, an excellent kicker on the end:
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the dramatic turnaround in U.S. fortunes, "does not want a timetable," Mr. Obama reported with welcome candor during a news conference yesterday. In an interview with ABC, he explained that "there are deep concerns about . . . a timetable that doesn't take into account what [American commanders] anticipate might be some sort of change in conditions."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has a history of tailoring his public statements for political purposes, made headlines by saying he would support a withdrawal of American forces by 2010. But an Iraqi government statement made clear that Mr. Maliki's timetable would extend at least seven months beyond Mr. Obama's. More significant, it would be "a timetable which Iraqis set" -- not the Washington-imposed schedule that Mr. Obama has in mind. It would also be conditioned on the readiness of Iraqi forces, the same linkage that Gen. Petraeus seeks. As Mr. Obama put it, Mr. Maliki "wants some flexibility in terms of how that's carried out."
Other Iraqi leaders were more directly critical. As Mr. Obama acknowledged, Sunni leaders in Anbar province told him that American troops are essential to maintaining the peace among Iraq's rival sects and said they were worried about a rapid drawdown.
Mr. Obama's response is that, as president, he would have to weigh Iraq's needs against those of Afghanistan and the U.S. economy. He says that because Iraq is "a distraction" from more important problems, U.S. resources devoted to it must be curtailed. Yet he also says his aim is to "succeed in leaving Iraq to a sovereign government that can take responsibility for its own future." What if Gen. Petraeus and Iraqi leaders are right that this goal is not consistent with a 16-month timetable? Will Iraq be written off because Mr. Obama does not consider it important enough -- or will the strategy be altered?
Arguably, Mr. Obama has given himself the flexibility to adopt either course. Yesterday he denied being "so rigid and stubborn that I ignore anything that happens during the course of the 16 months," though this would be more reassuring if Mr. Obama were not rigidly and stubbornly maintaining his opposition to the successful "surge" of the past 16 months. He also pointed out that he had "deliberately avoided providing a particular number" for the residual force of Americans he says would be left behind.
Yet Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama's antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable.Well, it's certainly nice to see a major paper pointing out the obvious. Hmm, which is more strategically important, the largest oil-producing region on the planet, or a pile of rocks capable of hosting only al Qaeda raiding parties (because when they set up bases, the bases get vaporized in short order)?
It also seem worthwhile, since we're pointing out the obvious, to note this from Blackfive:
There is an important concept needed to understand the negotiations -- both formal ones, and those using the press as a proxy -- between the US and Maliki on the long-term security agreement between our countries. The real issue is not which bases we will maintain, or surrender. It is not whether we will stay for 16 months or ten years. The real issue is whether Iraq is a genuinely sovereign power, with the full authority to negotiate its interests as an equal with America.Not good news in the short run for Mr. McCain but please, let's just boil this down to its essence: McCain supported the war and he deserves to get dinged for that, while Obama had the luxury of making catcalls from the peanut gallery. Since then, McCain has told the truth as he saw it and has never indulged in the Bush-like happytalk, where things were going just peachy in the face of a profusion of facts to the contrary. Furthermore, he has been both courageous and prescient, while Obama was neither. When you add onto that Obama's tortured construction of a foreign policy that attempts to simultaneously acknowledge the success of the surge (which he erroneously thinks is merely a troop escalation), while stating that it was unnecessary and also attempts to deny the strategic importance of Iraq, both as a front in suppressing Middle East terrorism and simply as a geographic region in which the US must preserve its military options, there's clearly a winner on this issue and there's equally clearly a loser.
It is vitally important to our counterinsurgency efforts that the answer to that question be "Yes." In order for Iraq to survive its internal pressures, the central government must be accepted as legitimate by the people. This is the capstone of the counterinsurgency effort, the point at which the move from war to law will be complete...
There is one final matter to make it real: our own influence. The Iraqis must see that their government is in fact theirs. It cannot be a puppet; it must be theirs in fact.
Here, then, is the concept: Iraq must appear to "win" in the negotiations with the United States. In public, Maliki must appear strong and confident, able to command even America within the bounds of Iraq.
Greyhawk and Matt are perfectly correct that Maliki's statements in the past have always been overconfident of his capacity to ask America to leave. It's also clear that his current situation favors a continuing presence of US allies, to continue to train his security forces in the short term; his air force in the medium term; and to provide a useful alliance and security guarantee v. Iran and others in the long term. You can trust the man to understand these matters, but in public, he must appear strong and defiant in order to retain the confidence of his governing coalition, and the broader Iraqi public.
If we recognize that, we will come to an arrangement that suits both our peoples, and can be sustained in the long term without political stress. Success in COIN requires a state of the type Iraq is starting to appear to be: strong, independent, and a legitimate voice for the interests of its population. That is how you get them to turn to politics as a way of expressing their interests.
Obama's disingenuousness--to say nothing of the obvious silliness of his assertions--troubles me somewhat, in that it smacks of Bush Brand Happytalk, 2004-2006. However, it's pretty clear that he knows he flubbed this one and is doing his best to back out of it gracefully--failing, so far, but doing his best. I view that as a qualifiedly good sign. I'm real happy when potential leaders recognize problems and work hard to remedy them. McCain's got the right resume on this issue but it's pretty obvious that he's not going to be President, at least unless he makes an astounding number of strategic campaign course-corrections. To that end, I'm glad to see Obama working so hard.