Commentary Magazine


Re: Obama on the War

Peter has already offered a trenchant response to Barack Obama’s New York Times op-ed, “My Plan For Iraq.” But the article is filled with so many misstatements and distortions that I feel compelled to weigh in as well. Herewith some thoughts on specific passages, from someone who is admittedly part of the McCain team of foreign policy advisers. Obama’s statements are in italics; my responses follow:

The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated.

The lead paragraph of Obama’s article makes it sound as if the Iraqi leader has endorsed the Democratic candidate’s call for withdrawing all U.S. brigades from Iraq within 16 months of assuming office. He has done no such thing. Iraqi leaders have kept talk of timetables vague on purpose because they know how much they still depend on American assistance.

I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

The question of how much of a threat Saddam Hussein posed is certainly debatable. If their public statements are anything to judge by, Bill Clinton and senior members of his administration had a much graver view of the threat than did Obama. So did many Democratic members of the Senate, including Tom Daschle, Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, who voted to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq. None of them connected Saddam Hussein with 9/11 (neither did George W. Bush) but they believed, as Bill Clinton put it in 1998, “The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow.”

Moreover if Obama only favors military action against those who had something to do “with the 9/11 attacks,” why is he proposing an expanded American commitment in Afghanistan? The few Al Qaeda terrorists who have not already been caught or killed and who were connected to the 9/11 plot remain safely ensconced in Pakistan. They are not fighting us in Afghanistan. The enemy there is largely composed of Taliban fighters who had nothing to do with 9/11 and who also pose “no imminent threat” to the United States.

But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted. Iraq’s leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge.

It’s nice that Obama is not denying his misguided opposition to the surge. It’s not so nice that he is still denying the surge’s success. He can no longer claim that the surge has failed militarily-as he predicted it would. But he’s still claiming that the surge has failed politically. It’s almost as if he is unaware of the recent report from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad which found that the Iraqis have met 15 of 18 benchmarks. As summed up by the Washington Post: “The embassy judged that the only remaining shortfalls were the Baghdad government’s failure to enact and implement laws governing the oil industry and the disarmament of militia and insurgent groups, and continuing problems with the professionalism of the Iraqi police. All other goals — including preparations for upcoming elections, reform of de-Baathification and disarmament laws, progress on enacting and spending Iraq’s budget, and the capabilities of the Iraqi army — were rated “satisfactory.” And, while Iraq has not passed an oil law, its parliament is dividing oil revenues among the provinces.

It’s true that not all of Iraq’s political problems have been solved. But then we haven’t solved all of our own political problems in the past 18 months either. The Iraqis are certainly making more progress than opponents-and even many supporters-of the surge expected.

The good news is that Iraq’s leaders want to take responsibility for their country by negotiating a timetable for the removal of American troops. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, estimates that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for security in 2009.

This is a fundamental misreading of what Lt. Gen. Dubik told the House Armed Services Committed on July 9. Anyone who reads the transcript will see that the committee chairman, Ike Skelton, asked Dubik to tell him “when will the Iraqis be able to handle their own security so our troops will no longer have to do it?” Dubik repeatedly refused to give a date: “I would not put an X on a calendar, Mr. Chairman.” When pressed by Skelton he responded, “The ground forces will mostly be done by middle of next year.”

That is the very ambiguous statement that Obama is now citing as evidence that Iraqi troops can defend their country with almost no help from us by 2009. But all Dubik said is that the expected allotment of Iraqi ground troops will be fully trained and equipped by the middle of next year. He said nothing about other branches of the Iraqi armed services, such as the air force, which continue to lag considerably behind. Imagine a modern army operating without air cover. It’s hard to imagine, but in Iraq, if the Iraqi Security Forces are going to have air cover (to include close air support, surveillance, and medical evacuation), it will have to come largely from the United States. That will require the presence of lots of American airmen in the country, who in turn will have to be defended and supplied by lots of American ground troops.

But that’s only a small part of the role that American forces will have to continue to play. While Iraqis are fielding lots of ground troops who are ready and eager to take the fight to the enemy, they lag behind not only in air support but also in many of the higher level, more sophisticated functions needed to support ground troops in action-functions such as planning, intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, logistics, and procurement. U.S. personnel continue to provide vital help in these and other areas, and they in turn need protection to operate safely within Iraq.

Even the Iraqi ground forces, while more capable, still require considerable advising and mentoring from American troops. Even if the entire Iraqi ground force will be certified as trained and equipped in 2009 (and similar deadlines have slipped in the past), that doesn’t mean they can operate on their own. To operate effectively they will need a considerable presence of embedded American advisers, who, too, will require American ground forces for their protection. Some of the most effective training for Iraqi troops comes from having the ability to operate alongside American troops. So maintaining U.S. combat brigades in the country not only delivers direct benefits in terms of added security, it also plays a vital role in the maturation of their Iraqi counterparts.

U.S. troops play yet another vital function: They serve as a buffer between competing sectarian groups which are still understandably suspicious of one another since Iraq is less than 18 months removed from the brink of an all-out civil war. Remove the societal glue provided by U.S. troops and who knows what may happen. It is for this reason that U.S. troops remain stationed in Kosovo nine years after they first arrived, and why it’s important for them to remain stationed in Iraq for some time to come.

Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis’ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country.

This is the mantra that Obama and other opponents of the war effort recited in opposing the surge: They claimed that increasing the number of U.S. troops would take the pressure off Iraqis to forge political compromises. In fact, as we know now, exactly the opposite happened: As supporters of the surge expected, an increase in security provided breathing room for Iraqi politicians to make compromises, allowing them to achieve 15 of 18 benchmarks. The theory that withdrawing U.S. troops would lead to even greater compromises flies in the face of history: We were in fact taking U.S. troops off the streets in 2005-2006. The result was not “political accommodation” but an alarming increase in blood-letting. Obama seems to have learned nothing from that very recent history.

Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition – despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq’s sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops “surrender,” even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.

This is malicious slander against the architects of the surge which has vastly increased the security of Iraq and hence the ability of its government to exercise its sovereign powers. In fact neither President Bush nor Senator McCain has done anything that goes against “the will of Iraq’s sovereign government.” Yet that is precisely what Obama did when he advocated a pull-out of U.S. troops in 2007. That was definitely against the will of Iraq’s government.

The notion that a premature pullout could not be a “surrender” because “we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government” is laughable. The question is whether that sovereign government will have the ability on its own, even if denied vital American support, to defeat all of the enemies that it faces. Since the answer up until now has been a resounding no, pulling out American forces on the Obama timeline would in fact amount to a surrender, however unintended.

But this is not a strategy for success – it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States.

Obama is right that most Americans don’t want our troops to remain in Iraq, although the percentage who favor an immediate pullout has been falling with the success of the surge. (In a June Pew poll, 43% said we should keep troops in Iraq until it’s stabilized while 53% said we should bring them home as soon as possible-a fall of four points since the previous poll in April.) Looking at Iraqi public opinion, a poll released in March by ABC, BBC, and other Western news organizations found that only 38% think that coalition forces should “leave now.” Fully 62% said that U.S. forces should remain until the Iraqi government and its security forces are stronger. So keeping troops in Iraq is not exactly contrary to the will of the Iraqi people-as Obama will no doubt discover when he finally visits Iraq for the second time.

As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 – two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began.

Obama’s faith in his withdrawal plan is at odds with the views of soldiers who have spent a bit more time in Iraq than the senator has. Martha Raddatz of ABC News recently interviewed Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of Multi-National Division-Baghdad. He said that any withdrawal plan would have to be conditions-based-exactly on what Senator McCain has said. Raddatz asked him if it would be dangerous to pull out troops based not on conditions but on a timeline-the Obama approach. His reply: “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.” His view was confirmed by other soldiers Raddatz interviewed, such as Captain Josh West, who told her, “If we pull out of here too early, it’s going to establish a vacuum of power that violent criminal groups will be able to fill once we leave.”

Whatever its political impact, soldiers told Raddatz that Obama’s drawdown plan was simply impractical: “Physically removing the combat brigades within that kind of time frame would be difficult,” she reports, because so much equipment would have to be hauled out of a war zone. Raddatz concludes: “several commanders who looked at the Obama plan told ABC News, on background, that there was ‘no way’ it could work logistically.”

After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces. That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.

Obama has never said how large this “residual force” would have to be. Colin Kahl, one of his chief Iraq advisors, has estimated we might keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq through 2010. If that’s the size of the “residual force” that Obama has in mind, and assuming that Iraq continues to progress as rapidly as it has, his plan might not jeopardize Iraqi security. But then that would hardly constitute the kind of withdrawal that he has promised his supporters. If he has in mind a much smaller force, it is doubtful that it could perform all the necessary tasks while maintaining requirements for “force protection.” Moreover, it is a fantasy to think that, if the security situation gets worse after a U.S. pull-out, we could still safeguard our interests with a small “strike force” targeted against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Our Special Operations Forces are the best in the world but in the past they could not stop Al Qaeda from establishing bases under their noses in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Only a surge of U.S. and Iraqi forces increased security on the ground, giving local residents confidence to rat out the terrorists without fear of losing their lives. This in turn made it possible to drive the terrorists out of their old strongholds. Obama’s notion seems to be that we should risk letting Al Qaeda re-establish itself and then, if necessary, dispatch a few commandos to deal with them. That is the height of folly.

Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been.

That may be Obama’s view, but two knowledgeable observers disagree. In a message released on December 28, 2006, Osama bin Laden declared: “The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers [Iraq]. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.” From the other side of the battlefield, General David Petraeus said on September 12, 2007 that Iraq is “the central front of al Qaeda’s global war of terror.” What does Obama know that they don’t?

But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.

On what basis does Obama reiterate the tired talking point about Iraq being “the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy”? Given the success of the surge, that assertion has passed its sell-by date. That claim may still come true, however, if we pull out while the situation remains as precarious as it is today.

It’s time to end this war.

I realize it’s hopeless to argue with bumper-sticker banalities, but Obama should realize that neither he nor any other American president could “end this war.” At most he could end American involvement. But unless Sunni and Shiite extremists give up the battle when we leave (and why would they?), a unilateral American pullout would notend the war. It would result in a defeat for the Untied States and an expansion of the war. That’s what would have happened if Obama had been able to implement his 16-month withdrawal timetable in 2007, as he originally wanted. It is likely that would happen still if he were to implement his plan next year.

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