Out in Sixteen Months — Another Take

How Barack Obama should navigate the politics of Iraq, allowing him to become president and then execute a superior policy to that of either John McCain or George W. Bush, that actually might succeed in getting troops out of Iraq,

Mark suggests a possible way to deal with the press’s penchant for finding inconsistency in Barack Obama’s Iraq position. Mark’s advice is fine, but his presentation leaves out some interesting sidelights on this episode.

First, it’s worth noting that during the primaries, Obama’s early speech against the war tended to insulate him from detailed questioning about his plan, which to the extent it was elaborated, was almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s position. Obama has always given himself pragmatic escape hatches from a rigid plan to withdraw troops, including the need to keep enough capacity to protect Americans and deal with terrorism. The policy community has been anxious to receive answers to a myriad of questions about how the policy would be executed. (See for example today’s NYT editorial.)

This community, closely involved in the twists and turns of the debate in Washington as well as the situation on the ground in Iraq, has focused on local improvements in security and a few improvements in the capability of the national government. Advocates of the project or just those who follow the “pottery barn rule” enunciated by Colin Powell are basically tied to trajectory of the current endeavor. Those who were skeptical of the surge have been surprised about the extent of the improvements in security, even though much of this resulted from a confluence of the “Sunni Awakening” making the “sea” of the population unfavorable for Sunni extremists, and from al Sadr’s tactical decision to pull back from challenging the Americans. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the Surge has NOT yielded the political progress propounded as its main purpose by its advocates.

Focusing on the tactical situation in Iraq alone, this community has assumed that a McCain administration would seek success in Iraq, subject to the constraints of available US forces, while an Obama administration would pursue withdrawal subject to not precipitously destabilizing the already precarious situation in Iraq. The reality constraints imposed by George W. Bush’s disastrous policies have suggested to this community that it’s not clear how these policies would differ in practice if competently pursued–because so little progress has been made in producing a functioning government, polity and civil society in Iraq, and because the health of the American military (as well as the situation in Afghanistan) demands a substantial drawdown of forces from Iraq.

In fact there is no reason to assume that the two administrations would be equally competent. Many of my conservative friends in the national security community are hoping for an Obama administration because they do not believe that McCain would make the sweeping changes necessary, especially in the intelligence community.

Beyond competence, basic policy orientation will be crucial. There is a big difference between assuming that we are close to success and assuming that this is not a conflict that we should have taken on. In a sea of ambiguity, where as occupiers without relevant cultural and language skills almost all our efforts are at least partially self-defeating, a clear mission of getting out in a responsible way will play out very differently from a mission of getting out only after victory, no matter how binding the constraints appear to analysts. Obama’s clarity about the non-imperial end-state and may be at least as important to a safe withdrawal as anything in the tactical situation.

Moreover, articles by Thomas Powers and Michael Massing in the July 17 New York Review of Books point up the importance of a changed orientation to Iran if we want any chance of getting out of Iraq. Obama is much more disposed to this than McCain. Only a strategic dialogue with Iran has the potential to change the current situation where Iran sees miring us in Iraq as in its interest.

Within Iraq, we have the dangerous combination of a poorly functioning central government of dubious legitimacy, combined with factions that are heavily armed — and, in some cases, trained by us. As the conflict in Basra shows, this conflict is as much about power and spoils as about ethnicity. Eventual stability in Iraq will require a politics that integrates from the bottom-up rather than the top down. Once again, an Obama administration will be less committed than McCain to the poor choices made by the incompetent and ideological Bush administration–especially since McCain remains close to many of the neocons that pushed the invasion of Iraq and hostility to Iran. Obama’s disposition to withdraw is a more effective bargaining platform with parties in Iraq than McCain’s insistence on staying forever. But at base, as Obama, has argued, on his timetable we will have had combat forces in Iraq for seven years. This should be long enough for Iraq to sort out its political issues and stand up its own security forces.

Great subtlety and flexibility will be required in order to get out of Iraq in decent shape. Because of Obama’s early opposition to the war, he was able to say, in essence, “trust me” to the anti-war constituency. Now that the primaries are over, those concerned with Iraq policy (such as George Packer) want to see more substance than “sixteen months,” and political reporters are on the lookout for a “move to the center” (and with the background of the FISA issue, the left blogosphere is vigilant against just such a move.)

Obama must navigate this context with a press corps that is about as subtle as a brick and as susceptible to being led by the McCain campaign as a lap dog. (Remember the treatment of the Wes Clark comments?)

In fact, the McCain campaign has been trying to sucker-punch Obama on Iraq. First it taunted Obama for not having visited Iraq in years, suggesting he should go and listen and if he did he would change his policy. Then, when some words of Obama’s suggested that he might refine his policy in response to input from experts in Iraq, the McCain campaign attacked him for flip flopping.

How should Obama navigate these treacherous waters? By sticking to his policy (Over time I’d downgrade the symbolism of sixteen months in favor of the mission of urgently getting out of the occupier role, but that’s a wrinkle) and by showing sophistication about the details of the problems we face on the ground in Iraq and in the region — without necessarily presenting a detailed plan that would give even more hostages to fortune. This way, he satisfies the political reporters that demand consistency, the antiwar voters who demand purity, but also the policy wonks and opinion writers who look for seriousness.

Update In response to a reader’s questions, I have clarified (in italics, above) that the seeming “convergence” between what Obama and McCain might actually do in Iraq is a by-product of a particular view of Iraq policy rather than a clear view of either McCain’s or Obama’s impulses and how they might play out.