The Obama Plan: why not a surge?

If there’s a plan to get out of Iraq by a date certain, then sending more troops now really would be a surge rather than a permanent escalation. So why not?

Have I mentioned recently that Barack Obama is a very clever fellow?

Offhand, I would have guessed that Congress couldn’t actually force the President to get out of Iraq, because he could always make the cost of doing so prohibitive. But the Obama plan seems to square the circle: it provides a legally binding and administratively and tactically feasible process for doing the job: a cap on troop strength now, a requirement that the Pentagon prepare a withdrawal strategy that gets our combat troops out by March of next year, with a Presidential option to come back to Congress for a relaxation of that deadline, if the Iraqis hit certain targets.

The plan has big advantages: it reassures the country that our commitment to Iraq isn’t open-ended, and it allows Bush and Petraeus to approach al-Maliki as the good cops to the Democrats’ bad cops.

But that being so, is the cap really necessary? I’m more or less convinced that sending more troops now isn’t going to work (based mostly on the opinions of people who know more about the situation than I do), but it would be foolish to say that it couldn’t possibly work. Gen. Petraeus, of course, had to back the President’s plan once he’d agreed to take that command, so his assertion that he needs and wants the extra troops can’t be taken at face value, but on the other hand everyone more or less agrees that he’s a grown-up and less of a suck-up than his predecessors, and he has clearly said that he wants the additional troops and has an idea what to do with them.

The strongest argument against adding troops is that it’s a distraction from the problem of getting the hell out, and that it won’t be temporary. That’s why the Democrats are right to resist the label “surge” for what Bush clearly plans as a permanent escalation. But if the rest of the Obama plan is in place, that problem mostly goes away.

Of course even a temporary addition of troops might make the political-military situation in Iraq worse rather than better, and it might lead to more American casualties. But even if it doesn’t fully turn the situation around, a truly temporary surge could equally well make things better and reduce casualties by convincing both the Sunni insurgents and the Sadrists to keep their heads down for a while. (There’s evidence that some of the Mahdi Army commanders have already decamped to Iran to wait things out. I don’t see that as bad news.)

Even in crassly political terms, giving Bush what he says he wants now would make it harder for him to pin the bad outcome which is likely to materialize in any case on the Democrats. The problem for Obama is that a proposal including a surge would lose him antiwar/netroots points, while the proposal as he made it gains him points.

On the other hand, what if some of the Republicans were willing to get behind the Obama plan if it didn’t forbid a surge? Then Obama could graciously compromise, scoring media points for bipartisanship, putting the President in an impossible position politically, and quite possibly getting us out of Iraq on the least disastrous terms available from where we are.

That might even be Obama’s desired outcome (clever fellow that he is). By proposing withdrawal with no surge, he has left withdrawal with a surge as a possible compromise for, e.g., Sen. Warner to propose. I’m never willing to bet on bringing off that sort of three-carom billiard in politics, but if it happened I would count it as a very good result.

Update I think Kevin Drum gets this one wrong. He says that cutting off funding is the only way for Congress to control military action, and that Obama’s claim that his plan won’t reduce funding for the troops in Iraq means that it won’t work.

But if I read Obama’s statement correctly, he means that it won’t reduce funding for troops currently in Iraq; it will forbid adding new ones, and it will mandate a systematic withdrawal by a date certain. Clearly the Congress has the power to limit not only funding but troop levels, and it has the power to order the Pentagon to plan and execute a withdrawal.

Congress’s inability to control operations in detail stems from its lack of capacity, not any Constitutional limitation. That’s the brilliance of the Obama plan: it puts the operational responsibility where it belongs, but it dictates an endpoint.

And I’m not at all sure that Obama can’t get 2/3 votes in both Houses behind it, especially as part of a bargain to allow the surge as long as it’s truly temporary.

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