Scanning the daily press, an American voter is likely to come away with the following characterization of Barack Obama: he opposed the Iraq war from the start, he conscientiously opposed it even when public opinion was against him, and if elected president, he would withdraw U.S. forces from there immediately. There is every reason to assume that Obama’s antiwar credentials have enabled his all-but-certain victory in the Democratic primary, and yet few have attempted scrutiny of those credentials (the New Republic and Commentary are the rare exceptions), let alone analyzed Obama’s policy prescriptions for how to resolve a smoldering crisis in Mesopotamia. As with much of his electoral appeal, the stump catechisms of “hope” and “change” have eclipsed Obama’s more wavering rhetoric about Iraq over the past five years. And as for what he plans to do going forward, his ideas are not just frighteningly ill informed and out of date, they’re not even on nodding terms with the realities in a part of the world that, since 9/11, has held a monopoly on our attention.
In October 2002, the then-Illinois state senator addressed an antiwar rally in Chicago, where, describing himself as no pacifist, he affirmed, “I… know Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors… and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”
Obama went on to campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as having been against regime change, ab initio. He lost that contest to Chicago favorite Bobby Rush, but has congratulated himself ever since for, as he put it in a debate at Dartmouth College in 2007, “telling the truth to the American people even when [it was] tough…standing up against this war at a time where [sic] it was very unpopular. And I was risking my political career, because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race.” Left out of this courageous resume is the fact that it was in his proximate political interest to take the position he did. He was trying to appeal, after all, to what the New Republic‘s Michael Crowley called a “coalition of lakefront liberals and African Americans,” and he was running in solidly Democratic state from a district – Hyde Park – that was heavily antiwar. Obama’s own campaign manager at the time, Dan Shomon, admitted, “He knew, and I knew, that the liberal progressives were key in any Democratic primary.” Obama may very well have been sincere in his opposition to the war, but he could not have adopted any other position and still have had a shot at winning a contentious primary. Also, his courage in telling harsh truths to the American people cannot account for why he twice removed his Chicago speech from his presidential campaign website – a curious elision for a man who claims to have had greater prescience and “purity” on Iraq than any of his opponents on either side of the aisle did.
Far from being “above politics,” Obama has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to play the sordid game with almost undetectable skill. He has indeed equivocated and contradicted himself on the war, and he has more or less confessed to tilting whichever way the wind blows for the purposes of political expediency. When challenged with some of his own wobblier pronouncements on holding fellow Democrats to account for authorizing the war, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that the party had just put up “a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war. And so it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party’s nominees’ decisions when it came to Iraq.”
Thus Obama was willing to sacrifice his own belief in the folly of Kerry and Edwards’s decisions so as not to rock the boat on their way to the White House. What else might he be willing to sacrifice, go silent on, or obfuscate, when he himself is the one running for president? In an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker in 2007, before he had declared his presidential candidacy and when he was still in the habit of giving Hillary Clinton her due: “[P]erhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn’t have the benefit of U.S. intelligence. And, for those who did, it might have led to a different set of choices… [Clinton] and I were in different circumstances at that time: I was running for the U.S. Senate, she had to take a vote, and casting votes is always a difficult test.” No doubt it is. But lest this generous dispensation to his future rival lead you to credit Obama for his humility and self-criticism, consider that the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, on which he claimed to have based his antiwar stance, conceded that Saddam had an arsenal of WMD but did not pose an imminent threat. As Crowley shrewdly puts it, “If Obama already accepted that Saddam had WMD, why would the intelligence have changed his view about war?” What would he have learned from classified information that he didn’t already know and that any one of the former Democratic contenders for president this year might have trotted out in their defense for voting to go to war?
Obama wasn’t even clear about being unclear. In November 2004, after winning his senate race against the farcical Alan Keyes, Charlie Rose asked him the same question – would he have voted against authorizing the president to go to war? Obama answered that time with a definitive “Yes.” Though he allowed that since U.S. forces were already fighting and dying in Iraq, “we’ve got to do everything we can to stabilize the country, to make it successful, because we’ll have too much at stake in the Middle East. And that’s the position that I continue to take.”
It took Obama almost a year before he gave another major speech on the war, though he did say, in July 2004, that his position was “not that much different” from George Bush’s – referring to the occupation. He attempted recently to explain his reticence as that of a freshman lawmaker who didn’t want to showboat during in his first year in Congress. When he did finally address the war, in November 2005, amidst the fervent leftist talk about “immediate” troop withdrawal, he struck a cautious tone, saying that our exit strategy ought to be conservative and gradual. He was against a full withdrawal but favored a reduction in forces. In June 2006, after the Golden Mosque bombing and the intensification of sectarian violence, Obama visited Iraq and came away even more chastened: “I’m… acutely aware,” he said, “that a precipitous withdrawal of our troops, driven by Congressional edict rather than the realities on the ground, will not undo the mistakes… It could compound them. It could compound them by plunging Iraq into an even deeper, and perhaps, irreparable crisis.”
Yet it didn’t take long for him to alter course and rhetoric again. By November 2006 he was calling for a “phased” withdrawal of troops, albeit without a rigid timeline for its implementation. He argued that a “redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels.”
When the President announced the “surge” in January 2007, Obama was vociferously against it, claiming it would not diminish violence. In February, after he announced his candidacy, he offered a plan that would bring all of the U.S.’s combat troops home by March 2008, or about thirteen months from that point, a projection that should have been the wake-up call for anyone serious about ending the war to realize that Obama was slightly less than serious. For one thing, it would take, by a conservative estimate, 16 months to do what Obama said could be done in thirteen. His current nebulous plan has made the necessary calendric correction, but the possibility of implementing it is still remote. Recall that President Bush announced on live television the infusion of 21,000 additional troops into Iraq. There were a few hiccups and head-scratches among keen observers of the actual deployment when 30,000 in fact were sent over, prompting the surge’s chief architect, Robert Kagan, to pen an apologia of his original math in The Weekly Standard. What accounted for the 9,000-man discrepancy?
There is a calculable difference between “combat brigades” and total armed forces. According to Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, who wrote about the military logistics of remaining in and leaving Iraq in The Atlantic in June 2006, “[f]or each American soldier capable of going out on patrol or fighting insurgents, there are five support troops supplying his needs,” meaning that, at the pre-surge level of 130,000 troops, “only about 25,000 [were] combat troops.” These are the guys who routinely draw arms against insurgents, not their ancillaries such as MPs, signals officers and the like. Obama’s current plan – and here I quote from “Barack Obama: Turning the Page in Iraq,” his official campaign document on his war policy – calls for the removal of “one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of next year.” It allows for the maintenance of a “residual force” to “protect American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq” and to continue battling al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. As for what “military personnel” will remain apart from that residual force, or how extensive that force will be, the Obama camp is mums, and for good reason.
Consider the following: The bulk of our presence is Iraq is confined to what are known as Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which are mostly located outside of cities and have excellent security. There are about 70 FOBs all across the country right now, and more than a dozen are giant military installations reminiscent, as Kaplan wrote, “of the West German garrisons from Cold War days,” the removal of which, needless to say, will not be easy, swift or likely given the capital investments they represent. Nor should one expect these facilities to be left unattended or manned solely by Iraqis. John McCain was quite right when he spoke of a prolonged U.S. presence in the Gulf, provided – and Obama and McCain’s liberal critics always fail to recapitulate this necessary condition – U.S. troops are not being targeted or killed. Most troops reside safely in these well-fortified FOBs, and they might continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As for the rest of the Pentagon’s materiel – tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, etc. – this will have to be evacuated slowly and under duress, with most of it traveling by ground toward Kuwait down Route Tampa, a highway favored by insurgents for its murderous potential due to its narrowness. (Evacuations by air would occur at an even more glacial pace, as the largest U.S. cargo plane can carry only one or two tanks per trip. There are 1,900 tanks in total in Iraq at present.)
The probable Obama model for withdrawal, if he ever gets around to sharing specifics, will in any event call for 30-35,000 troops, or roughly five brigades, to stay behind. In April, the candidate tellingly queried David Petraeus on the feasibility of keeping roughly this number in country if “we had the current status quo” in terms of security. Kaplan, too, cited 30,000 as the most “stripped-down” contingent required to occupy the FOBs. But even Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group and has endorsed Obama, has scuppered the idea of setting any firm withdrawal date-it just isn’t possible, says the reputed “realist.” More notoriously, Obama’s former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power was fired not for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” but for telling another truth, namely that any cited plan for withdrawal is a “best-case-scenario” subject to revision once Obama becomes commander-in-chief. Another way of saying this is that his current crowd-pleasing peroration of “Bring Them Home Now” is a feint.
Yet there are still more unsettling aspects of Obama’s inchoate Iraq plan. His campaign literature states: “If Iraq makes political progress and their security forces are not sectarian, we would also continue training the Iraqi Security Forces.” Why should political progress be a precondition for training these forces – it wasn’t in the Iraq Study Group report, which cited failed reconciliation as a reason to concentrate more on military training as opposed to U.S.-led combat missions? And how many residual troops does Obama estimate will be required for such an enterprise?
Obama also demands that a “United Nations-Led Constitutional Convention” assemble to revise the current Iraqi constitution, which he sees as insufficiently inclusive Sunnis. This convention would “not adjourn until national reconciliation is reached and contentious questions such as federalism, oil revenue sharing, and de-Ba’athification are resolved.” Is no one at the Obama Headquarters aware that in February of this year, Iraq’s National Assembly passed a provincial councils law mandating new provincial elections by October 1; an amnesty law under which thousands of Sunnis imprisoned without charges will be released; and a de-Ba’athification law giving thousands of Saddam-era bureaucrats the ability to reassume their government jobs? Moreover, oil revenue sharing may not yet exist at the de jure level but it does exist at the de facto one, courtesy of a $48 billion budget that was also passed by parliament, allocating $10 billion – earned mainly from oil production – for even distribution to all eighteen provinces of Iraq. Does this sure sign of “political progress” mean Obama will similarly greenlight, as per the above, the further training of Iraqi forces? And how will that affect his overall drawdown strategy?
A more urgent question is this: How does Obama purport to restore America to its mythic former place of glory and esteem in the Middle East if he doesn’t bother to follow the news in the Middle East? The senator should update his website. And then he should have someone on his staff investigate what the typical Iraqi opinion is of the United Nations, selected by him to serve in the delicate role of constitutional revision and arbitration. Jonathan Foreman, a brilliant journalist and a contributor to Pajamas Media, has written of the native antipathy for the supranational body that produced immiserating sanctions, a decade of failed weapons inspections, and a secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who returned from Baghdad in 1998 declaring that Saddam was a man he could do business with. (Kofi’s son Kojo actually did reap illegal profits from the oil-for-food program, so Iraqi indignation on this score might be described as both righteous and misplaced). At any rate, the U.N. has not had an active presence in Iraq since insurgents bombed its embassy in 2003, killing its charismatic top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Obama further says wants to foster “regional stability,” particularly vital “given recent claims from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran will fill any vacuum created by American withdrawal.” Since he is campaigning for that selfsame withdrawal, why does he suppose Ahmadinejad will call the whole thing off just because he asks him to? Is he really that charming in person? Evidently so: “Obama also would be a tough negotiator with Syria and Iran,” continues his “Turning the Page” manifesto, “sending a clear message that they need to stop meddling in Iraq’s affairs.” Nice work if you can get it, but since Obama has clearly stopped meddling in Iraq’s affairs himself, not bothering to even keep up with significant events in its constitutionally certified government, his proposal to erase America’s military footprint and resort solely to diplomacy now begins to seem reckless and utopian – even more so than the adventurism he blames for getting us into this mess in the first place. How can anyone in possession of the foregoing facts and quotations be convinced of Obama’s superior judgment of what he once called “the most important foreign policy-decision in a generation”? He has been the beneficiary of luck, public obliviousness, media incuriosity and –much to her everlasting exasperation — Hillary Clinton’s inability to make any of this resonate with a smitten electorate. (And why has it never occurred to any journalist or pundit fond of the hypothetical to ask Obama if he would have voted for the Iraq Liberation Act, which passed unanimously in the Senate in 1998? A good follow-up to this would be to probe him on what he, as president, would have done to uphold that law short of removing the genocidal tyrant who necessitated it.)
There is every expectation that Obama will have his bluff called sooner or later. Adolph Reed, a prominent black leftist intellectual who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania, published a fascinating and undervalued essay in current issue of The Progressive magazine. It is titled “Obama No.” Professor Reed followed the resistible rise of this young Chicago politico for quite some time and never liked what he saw:
Obama’s style of being all things to all people threatens to melt under the inescapable spotlight of a national campaign against a Republican. It’s like what brings on the downfall of really successful con artists: They get themselves onto a stage that’s so big that they can’t hide their contradictions anymore, and everyone finds out about the different stories they’ve told different people.
The GOP has apparently amassed 1,000 pages of opposition research on the opponent. What are the odds that Obama will not eventually be tasked with his contradictions and falsehoods and alarming displays of ignorance on Iraq?
Michael Weiss is the New York Editor of Pajamas Media. His blog is Snarksmith.