Sunday, March 16, 2008

Obama on Iraq

Of late there has been a concerted effort to cast Barack Obama's position on Iraq as inconsistent, naive, or politically cynical. Most recently Michael Gerson claimed that where John McCain won his party's nomination for resisting "overwhelming pressure," Obama will only win the Democratic nomination "because he surrendered to that pressure." By Gerson's telling, McCain's support of the surge showed political courage, whereas Obama's continued support of a phased withdrawal in the face of the surge's effects both contradicts earlier positions he articulated and amounts to mere pandering to the supposed Democratic "anti-war" base.

Smoothly plausible as arguments like Gerson's may be, none amount to more than political spin when put to the least empirical test. No one, least of all John McCain, can claim to have possessed a crystal ball or to have been perfectly consistent in his or her policy advice on Iraq. Where in 2003 McCain expressed confidence that the war would be brief in duration and would virtually pay for itself, today he preaches the need for firm resolve and stoic sacrifice. No doubt he and his supporters would insist that his analysis has changed rightly and naturally as conditions on the ground in Iraq have evolved, and that this is no more than the strategic wisdom of any leader concerned for the security of our Republic. There is little to dispute in such claims, except to point out that any such explanation for Senator McCain's changeability with respect to Iraq applies equally to Senator Obama, a fact that commentators like Gerson would seem to hope we will ignore.

In fact, the basic strategic principles underpinning Senator Obama's orientation toward the Iraq war have remained unchanged since his now famous speech opposing the war delivered in October of 2002: "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Obama has always understood, in ways that McCain and Clinton seemingly do not, that the US has never been in control over how the Iraq conflict has evolved. All pundits and leaders have been in the position of making inaccurate predictions and changing policy prescriptions precisely because there have been few or no criteria by which one might judge what the short- and long- term effects of applying US power might be. Iraq's destiny has always been in the hands of Iraq's people and Iraq's leaders, it has never been in the United States' power to do anything more than catalyze forces already at work in Iraqi society at large. Those forces are so entropic and so volatile, moreover, that even Iraq's most firmly entrenched social and political leaders cannot confidently predict how the political terrain will shift and change from one month to the next. It is thus utter folly to imagine that any US plan will effect transparent outcomes.

McCain's call to remain in Iraq for "one hundred years" still clings to the myth of US omnipotence- any outcome we imagine may be achieved if only we Americans summon the resolve to accomplish it. Such sentiments make for good copy, but one can only stand amazed at the strategic folly of an aspiring US president tying himself to such an unequivocal threshold of success. By equating withdrawal with defeat, McCain has narrowed all of his strategic options to one- remain in Iraq irrespective of the harm or benefit the US presence might cause. To do otherwise would be "surrender."

By contrast, Obama's strategic position has always centered on the pragmatic core of the policy problem rather than symbolic superficialities like the false choice between "withdrawal" and "staying the course." As he said in July of 2004, "The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster." It is this problem, and not some abstract notion of "victory," that has been the focus of Obama's policy advice since his speech of 2002. Obama has argued consistently that the viability of the Iraqi state itself, and not some permanent US presence in Iraq or other symbolic benefit, must remain the focus of US policy efforts, and that to that end eventual disengagement from Iraq is our best and clearest course. Many scoff at Obama's position as naive, but after five years and tens of thousands dead and wounded on all sides such scorn says much more about the deep-seated ethnocentrism of US leaders and pundits than it does about Obama's judgment.

John McCain has undoubtedly been catapulted to the head of his party's ticket by his support of the surge. In January McCain's stance seemed as prescient as that of Obama's 2002 speech in defiance of the war itself. But as the months drag on, there is less and less cause to believe that the surge is the magic bullet that will forestall "the failure of the Iraqi state." Obama cannot claim to possess a crystal ball any more than McCain, but he can claim to have correctly perceived the limits of American power going in to this conflict. In other words, he is among the few American leaders to have predicted just how unpredictable this policy endeavor would prove to be. In that light, Obama's call for a phased withdrawal may be no more sure a solution to the crisis than John McCain's exhortation to stoic resolve, but it is likewise no less sure. Moreover, it recommends itself by virtue of two facts: 1)it has not as yet been tried in the course of this five-year tempest; 2)it is the considered analysis of one whose judgment has proved remarkably wise thus far.

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