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October 07, 2008

McCain and Obama's Iraq Policies
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Michael Gordon had a long piece yesterday in the NY Times breaking down the differences between Obama and McCain’s Iraq policies.  It’s a decent article that lays out the differences pretty clearly but I think it misses some major points. 

Gordon presents Obama’s timeline as being very different than that of the Iraqis and the U.S. military and also presents it as an “ironclad deadline.”

The “time goal” in the draft accord calls for the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011, more than twice as long as Mr. Obama’s 16-month deadline. And in the view of American negotiators, a “time goal” is more flexible than an ironclad deadline.

In reality, Obama’s plan – not McCain’s – is much closer to what the Iraqis are looking for and to what appears to be in the draft agreement.  In July Prime Minister Maliki himself argued for an agreement along Obama’s timeline.  Additionally, the draft agreement calls for all American combat forces to be removed from Iraqi cities by the middle of 2009.  That is more aggressive than anything Obama has said.  And according to Maliki’s own statements and interpretation of the agreement it looks like he may view 2011 as the date for the final withdrawal of all American forces – not just combat forces.  It has also been reported that the Iraqis originally took the position that they wanted American forces out by the end of 2010 and the Bush administration had to negotiate for an extra year.  There has even been speculation that the Bush administration pushed for 2011 to provide political cover for John McCain.  So how is it that Obama’s timeline is so problematic while McCain’s lack of any timeline makes any sense?

Moreover, Obama has never said that he has an “ironclad deadline”.  Obama has been pretty clear throughout the campaign that he is flexible and that, like any sane person, he would be willing to reexamine the exact details of the timeline if circumstance change.  In fact, earlier in the summer when he made this point very clearly people tried to call him out as being  a “flip flopper.” 

Gordon also makes the assumption that other players are in fact reasonable and flexible but refuses to make that assumption about Obama.  Describing the time goals in the U.S-Iraq security agreement he writes:

It is hard to predict how Iraqi leaders might feel about the need for an American presence several years from now

So, the assumption is that Iraqi politicians are flexible and might change their mind because nothing is written in stone.  We shouldn’t necessarily believe that they really mean it when they say they want all American forces out of Iraq by 2011.  They might change their minds.   That seems reasonable.  But why doesn’t that same standard apply to Obama?  Why does Gordon choose to treat Obama as a rigid ideologue who would insist on an “ironclad timetable” no matter what, while treating Iraqi politicians as flexible and willing to change their minds?  If anything pragmatism has been one of Obama’s defining characteristics on the campaign trail for the past 21 months.  There is no reason to think he would govern any differently.

Moving beyond Gordon’s assessment of Obama’s position and to his overall description of the situation, Gordon seems fixated on timetables while not focusing enough on political progress and broader strategy.  This piece was particularly telling: 

Asked to explain his plan, Mr. McCain did not provide any specific suggestions for how he could persuade Iraqi officials to make headway on these thorny political issues, beyond the sort of behind-the-scenes cajoling that American officials are already undertaking.

“I’ll continue to try to find ways to make them move forward. But to threaten withdrawal, frankly, is an option that I would be very reluctant to exercise unless I was sure that we had no other option, and I think we have lots of them,” Mr. McCain said. “I predict that the Iraqi government in a very halting and stumbling fashion, frustrating to us on many occasions, will move forward and progress.”

There is almost universal agreement among both political and military experts that the key to long-term stability in Iraq are political compromises that can lock in the security gains.  That means not just agreeing to have provincial elections, but holding free and fair elections that bring in the Sadrists and the Awakening Groups instead of shutting them out of the government.  It means effectively integrating the Sons of Iraq into the security forces.  It means finding some kind of agreement on Kirkuk and on the oil law.  McCain has no plan for how to do this, other than to keep doing what we have been doing and hope for the best.  And yet, rather than making that a major point, Gordon buries it near the end of the article.

In the end, Gordon does a fair job focusing on the right three issues:  1) The stakes in Iraq and how they fit into our overall national security strategy; 2) Political reconciliation in Iraq and how to lock in the security gains; and 3) U.S. military posture in Iraq.   The irony is that the points of emphasis are completely backwards.  He chooses to spend most of his time focusing on timelines and putting the least amount of emphasis on America’s broader national security strategy.  We should be thinking about the situation in reverse. 


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McCain will do the best job at defeating terrorists - full stop.Obama has an ever changing position and now he has a policy similar to McCain, except he's still going on about the 16months. he's now saying troops will stay behind as a peacekeeping force and protecting governments, so to me this means the same as McCains 100 year presence.

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