Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s vocal support for Barack Obama’s 16-month withdrawal timetable goes to show how distorted the Iraq drawdown argument has become in light of the election narrative.
Of course a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq becomes less preposterous as security increases in that country — because during that transition the idea of timetables stops being purely artificial and becomes more reality-based. To think otherwise is a logical absurdity, and that’s what the popular state of this discussion has become.
As a war draws to a close, individual soldiers don’t start calling travel agents and packing bags and a 150,000-strong force doesn’t leave in some magical instant that the last bad guy is killed: an army exits in groups and on a schedule. At some point, a viable exit is 16 months away. The real issue here–and the McCain camp took their eyes off it–is that Obama has believed us to be at that point for over a year and a half. Obama first introduced legislation for a fixed withdrawal plan on January 30, 2007. According to that plan, all combat brigades would have been out of Iraq by March 31, 2008; that’s 14 months–more or less the same time frame he proposes now. He would have been wrong. Iraq would have seen chaos, not calm and not political reconciliation. That plan would have ensured a monumental historic defeat for the U.S. and a civilian slaughter of biblical proportions in Iraq. If in January 2007, you had asked Nouri al-Maliki how he felt about a 14-month U.S. withdrawal timetable, he would have thought you were mad.
Which brings up another issue. The better part of McCain’s reluctance to talk about timetables was founded in the fear that we’d be giving the enemy a heads-up as to when their job would get easier. Doubtless American commanders were mindful of the same. Maliki’s suddenly loosened tongue might prove to be a very dangerous betrayal of this elementary precaution. In other words, even if Maliki’s time frame is doable (and about that there’s massive debate), its advance broadcast is just stupid.
Nonetheless, over the past few months, John McCain’s line on withdrawal should have gone something like this: “If at some point, this kind of progress in Iraq makes for genuinely stable circumstances then “timetables” will simply be a non-loaded description of how the U.S. troops come home. But Senator Obama has been proposing arbitrary timetables for a year-and-a-half now. The important thing is that we’re seeing sea-changes in Iraq and that would not have been the case if Obama’s withdrawal mantra had been heeded.” Instead, by letting the media’s version of his position frame the tone of his rhetoric, John McCain has handed Obama a false victory.
In any case, if Maliki truly wants U.S. combat forces out in 16 months, then we should leave. If he’s right — and Iraq sees a continued reduction in violence and progress as a viable state in the absence of American troops — then that certifies a gargantuan victory for America in the Iraq War. If he’s wrong, the world pays an incalculable price for a bad decision.