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July 11, 2008

A Mea Culpa on Iraq . . . Sort of UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

Last weekend, as many of you remember, Barack Obama declared his intention to refine his Iraq policy. Rather absurdly this was characterized by some in the media and the McCain campaign as a flip-flop; but now I'm beginning to wonder - maybe Barack Obama should flip-flop on Iraq; and maybe progressives should support him if he does.

It's really high time that those of us on the left (and I more than include myself in this list) who have been very critical of the surge and of the Administration's Iraq policy writ large acknowledge that the surge has brought real progress in Iraq and offers a glimmer of hope that things might turn out positively there. We weren't necessarily wrong about the surge (although it sure is looking that way); but we would be wrong if we continue to ignore the positive developments in Iraq.

We've gotten so used to decrying the endless number of Bush Administration mistakes in Iraq that I fear we are missing the forest for the trees and ignoring the fact that there is for the first time in Iraq a light at the end of the tunnel. This isn't a political question. We should all want Iraq to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy; even if we are skeptical that it might happen. And if it means acknowledging that the Bush Administration has made some right moves on Iraq over the past 18 months . .  then so be it.

I am not yet prepared to say that the surge has been a success; after all there is that messy hydrocarbon law and I remain unconvinced that Sunnis and Shiites are about to join hands and sing Kumbaya, but these are imperfect metrics and of course, tell only half the story.

Today, rising oil prices have given Iraq a giant budget surplus; somewhere in the realm of $70 billion. That kind of money goes a long way toward solving some rather significant political problems. We are seeing glimmers of democratic compromise emanating from the Iraqi Parliament. And the decision by Maliki to go after the Sadr militia in Basra was a critically important step for the country (and one largely unacknowledged by those of us on the left).

Of course, one cannot turn a blind eye toward Iraq's many glaring problems; above all my sense that the attack on the Sadr militia and the Sunni turn against Al Qaeda were tactical and temporary moves that may, in the end, presage more not less conflict.

The possibility that Iraq begins to move toward stability seems as good a possibility that Iraq will descend again into genocidal violence - and Obama's Iraq policy should reflect those two possibilities and encourage the former, rather than the policy he laid out last year when the success of the surge was far less clear.

I was struck by something I read today from Martha Raddatz:

We spent a day with Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond in Sadr City. He is the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for Baghdad. Hammond will likely be one of the commanders who briefs Barack Obama when he visits Iraq.

"We still have a ways to go. Number one, we're working on security and it's very encouraging, that's true, but what we're really trying to achieve here is sustainable security on Iraqi terms. So, I think my first response to that would be let's look at the conditions.

"Instead of any time-based approach to any decision for withdrawal, it's got to be conditions-based, with the starting point being an intelligence analysis of what might be here today, and what might lie ahead in the future. I still think we still have work that remains to be done before I can really answer that question," Hammond said when asked how he would feel about an order to start drawing down two combat brigades a month.

Asked if he considered it dangerous to pull out if the withdrawal is not based on "conditions," Hammond said, "It's very dangerous. I'll speak for the coalition forces, men and women of character and moral courage; we have a mission, and it's not until the mission is done that I can look my leader in the eye and say, 'Sir, Ma'am, mission accomplished,' and I think it is dangerous to leave anything a little early."

Of course, the biggest impediment to Obama shifting course in Iraq . . . is his own party. The left would go nuts if Obama reversed course on Iraq (FISA was nothing compared to what would happen if he backed off withdrawal). And while I'm not convinced that the 16-month timetable for withdrawal still doesn't make sense (in fact, I wouldn't be shocked if its less than 16 months) those of us who have decried the stubbornness of the Bush Administration on Iraq would be very unwise to do the same to Obama if he decides that the opportunity for progress in Iraq is simply too great to follow through on his campaign promise.

In retrospect, Obama made a mistake pledging to bring troops home on a fixed 16 month timetable, because it assumed that the situation in Iraq was irredeemable. A year ago it might have seemed that way; but no longer is that the case. We should acknowledge that fact and give Obama to leeway to do the same.

UPDATE: You know one of the nice things about blogging is that you can write something and then about an hour later decide that you want to add something or frame it in a different way . . . and typepad gives you that leeway. So let me add a few additional thoughts here.

Nothing I've written here runs fundamentally counter to what Obama has been saying on the campaign trail. He has always placed greater emphasis on strategy over tactics and has shown an inclination to be flexible in how he implements his Iraq policy. As he should. I have very little quibble with what Obama has said on Iraq. The plan he proposed last year on withdrawal was correct then; I'm not sure it's as viable now and if he makes the decision after going to Iraq that he needs to adjust tactics (while maintaining the overall strategy) he should be applauded for it. We should all give him leeway to change tactics so long as the overall strategy remains consistent. Absolutely nothing Obama has said -- or hopefully will say -- will run counter to this approach. Moreover, I didn't do justice to the complexity of what Obama is saying about Iraq, which of course includes talking to Iran about the future of Iraq (a critically important step and one that runs very counter to what John McCain is suggesting).

The other important point to make here is that Obama's flexibility runs in sharp contrast to the strategy outlined by John McCain, which is far more divorced from reality than Obama's plan.  McCain's 100-year strategy is basically the South Korea approach; keep a significant number of troops in country after stability is achieved. This is simply unrealistic and misplaced on a number of levels. First, it diminished any leverage the US might have over Iraq. If they don't think we are leaving, they have zero incentive to move forward with legitimiate political reform. Second, it assumes the military can maintain a long-terms troop presence in Iraq, which does not seem realistic. Third, it ignores the fact that the Iraqis don't want us to have a long-term presence in the country - a fact that was bolstered this week.

The crazy thing about McCain's plan is that he and his supporters have been arguing that he is responding to the facts on the ground. But in fact, his approach has really not changed at all - and I go back to 2003 in making that argument. Send more troops; don't talk about withdrawal; claim victory is the goal, but don't say what victory will look like. The call this week from Iraqis for the US to create a timetable for withdrawal seems to not have changed John McCain's mind at all about the need for a withdrawal timeline. Tell me again, who is not responding to facts on the ground?

For the candidate with supposedly greater foreign policy and national security experience it is a stunningly short-sighted approach.



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If the Iraqi soldiers are proven effective at creating security in the Middle East than why should the Americans stay longer in Iraq? Moreover it seems that the current rejection of SOFA agreement and added to that the demand for a timetable for the United States leaving Iraq by the Maliki government make it dangerous for the Americans to stay in Iraq. If American soldiers stay without the consent of the Iraqi government than they could face attacks by not only the Iraqi militias but also the Iraq Defense Forces as well.

Michael, while I'm partially sympathetic with your viewpoint, I have to say that the basic methodology of your analysis is sadly representative of what's wrong with both liberal and conservative American discussions of Iraq. I'm sympathetic in that I think America has an obligation to do what's best for the Iraqi people, even if that costs us more American money and American lives, and even if it's not the best move for certain politicians or parties. The question is, who should be asked whether continued occupation is good for the Iraqis? Your answer, like that of almost every other American commentator, liberal or conservative, is that Americans should be asked. Your sole evidence for your claim that continued occupation is good for the Iraqis is that an American military occupier (Hammond) says that it's good. I can't think of any case in which we'd think it reasonable to determine the goodness of a non-American military occupation by asking the opinion of the occupiers, rather than the occupied.

If you want to decide whether the occupation is good for the Iraqis, you should be asking the Iraqis. Take a look at this Iraqi opinion poll. A strong majority (72%) oppose the occupation (Q20). Majorities also say that the U.S. surge and forces have made security worse (Q21, Q23), and a strong plurality say that a complete American withdrawal would help security (Q33). Of those who say that security has improved, hardly any credit American forces (Q12a), but believe that local Iraqi institutions are responsible. The main result of this survey, that overwhelming majorities of Iraqis want Americans out of their country in the near future, is consistent with the dozens of other Iraqi surveys done since 2003.

The Iraqis may be wrong about what's best for them. Perhaps continued occupation is in their best interest, and they've just too stupid to realize it. But I don't know under what "white man's burden" philosophy we can occupy a foreign country to "help them" against their own desires. I don't understand how you can possibly justify basing your evaluation of Iraqi interests on the opinion of an American military occupier.

I have sympathy both for the view that a conditions based pull out is likely to leave a more stable situation and for the view that Iraqis will be keen to understand that there is an end date for the occupation. The situation is critical now inn the sense that if handled correctly a good outcome for Iraq now looks very possible. However if handled incorrectly a slide back into chaos is also possible.

Is it possible to square these seemingly opposing positions? Is it possible to accomodate both the military imperative ( conditions based pull out) and the political imperative ( a clear end date).

Perhaps one way of achieveing this is to set an end date that would be somewhat further ahead than might have been initially envisaged. this would be an end date which would be at the uter end of the timescale that might be estimated for reasonable conditions based pull out to be achieved. If this end date is far enough away it will give little succour to militants to wait it out but it also needs to be close enough so that Iraqis have a real sense that they are approaching the end of occupation. So what timescale achieves this postion - my guess would be a 2 to 2 and a half year end date with conditions based draw down and handover of responsibility to IDF continuing during that period. The understanding would be that if conditions were right then the ppull out could take place before that end date.

Perhaps an approach of this nature although not entirely satisfactory to all wold go some way to satisfying both the military and politiacl imperatives.

Its great to know all the updations.I was wondering this stuff of information only.I would like to say 90 percent of the equipment would have to be moved by ground through the Iraqi war zone, to the port in Kuwait, where it must all be cleaned and inspected and prepared for shipment. This is a place with frequent dust storms, limited port facilities and limited numbers of wash racks.

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