Obama and the “facts on the ground” in Iraq

When Obama is asked whether what he sees in Iraq changed his mind about what to do there, he should remind the questioners that an open-ended commitment in Iraq has costs here at home and around the world, and that a President is supposed to have a wider field of view than a theater commander.

Obviously, it’s now a convention of American journalism that the “facts on the ground” in Iraq dictate some approach other than Barack Obama’s “out in 16 months,” and the press corps, which won’t ask John McCain simple follow-up questions about economic policies that seem to have been written under the influence of powerful mind-altering drugs, will continue to badger Obama on this point, both before and after his trip to Iraq. Since the questions will assume that a refusal to change his position constitutes pandering to the webroots, while if he changes his position that will constitute flip-flopping and weakness, it would appear that Obama is in a no-win situation.

But the “gas tax holiday” also looked like a no-win situation until Obama and his troops turned it around with sheer stubbornness and rhetorical skill. So here’s my first draft of Obama’s response to the “aren’t you going to change your policy in deference to the facts on the ground and the opinions of the commanders?” question:

Of course I’m going to take into account the facts on the ground in Iraq, and the opinions of the theater commanders about what those facts are and what they mean for our strategy going forward.

But there are other facts, and other grounds, that also need to be taken into account:

* It’s a fact on the ground in Afghanistan that the Taliban have been getting stronger, and that the troops now tied down in Iraq aren’t available to help turn things around in what is actually the main theater of the war on terror.

* It’s a fact on the ground in Pakistan that support for the Taliban is getting stronger, and the government’s resolve to oppose the Taliban is getting weaker.

* It’s a fact on the ground in Iran that we have less capacity to exert influence directly on Iran, and to encourage the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians to press the Iranian government to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, because of our preoccupation with Iraq.

* It’s a fact on the ground in Washington that the $12 billion per month we’re spending in Iraq can’t be used to solve our other problems, including our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, or to reduce the deficit.

* It’s a fact on the ground in the Pentagon that the current war effort in Iraq is not sustainable and is doing long-term damage to the capacity of our military to defend us and to project our power around the globe. The equipment will, eventually, be replaced; but the costs of dipping deeper and deeper into the pool of potential recruits, and being less and less selective about retention and promotion because of the sheer need for warm bodies to fill the uniforms will be felt for years to come.

* It’s a fact on the ground across the country that the National Guard can’t offer as much help as we’d like it to in the face of natural disaster because so many Guard units have been deployed.

* It’s a fact on the ground that wives are waiting for returning husbands, husbands for returning wives, parents for returning children, and children for returning parents, and that the financial and family burden of repeated deployments is exacting a terrible toll on tens of thousands of American families.

If I’m elected President, I will be responsible for dealing with all those facts, on all those grounds. Of course the advice of the commanders in the field is to be respected. But no President can afford to pay attention only to what’s happening in Iraq, and to ignore what an open-ended commitment in Iraq would do to our other interests and goals, here at home and around the world.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com