Commentary Magazine


Where Is Obama Going?

Toward the end of a painfully long exchange, Tom Brokaw finally got this out of Sen. Claire McCaskill on Meet The Press:

MR. BROKAW: But, let me be clear about this, he says he’ll listen to commanders on the ground. He’s going there. But before he goes there, he says, “The day after I’m inaugurated, I’ll have Joint Chiefs in the office with instructions to get them out in 16 months.”


MR. BROKAW: So the real question is why even go if you know that you want to do that in advance?

SEN. McCASKILL: Well, of course. He, he has a goal of 16 months, but obviously, the most important thing in getting out…

MR. BROKAW: But that could stretch.

SEN. McCASKILL: …is to do it carefully. It–I mean, obviously, a goal is a goal, and he’s been very clear that that’s a goal. He’s been very clear that he wants to be careful and reasonable about the way–in fact, his phrase is, “I want to be the opposite of what we were when we went in. We were reckless and careless when we went in. We didn’t plan.” And by the way, there is–talk about a shifting position, I mean, John McCain used to be very positive about George Bush’s leadership in Iraq.

MR. BROKAW: Mm-hmm.

SEN. McCASKILL: As he gets closer to this presidential election, he was not as positive. And, and I hope we have a chance to transition back to the economy for a minute…

MR. BROKAW: We will.

MR. BROKAW: But for–just so that we can clarify, the 16 months is his goal, not a promise to the American people?

SEN. McCASKILL: Sixteen months is his goal. It would be irresponsible for a commander in chief to set in stone a date. But he believes, based on the best of military advice that he has gotten, that one to two brigades a month is reasonable. And I believe that that is his commitment to the American people, and he will keep that commitment to the American people.

So what we thought was a promise was a goal. What we thought was an unqualified timetable is not. What we thought was his determination to issue new orders really wasn’t. But whatever he committed to the American people he is still committing. (There are only so many questions one can ask, but Brokaw might have asked how his vote to cut off funding immediately figured into all of this.)

Can you imagine if he had said this during the primary? Hillary Clinton would be the one with the White House redecorating plans now. (I can understand why McCaskill was pleading to get back to the economy.)

However, what we don’t hear, and I am beginning to wonder if we will, is any recognition from the Obama that we need to build upon the success of the surge and not allow Iraq to drift back into chaos. From his op-ed in the New York Times the answer appears to be “no.” Notice how he shies from any causal connection between the surge and gains we have achieved: “the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda.” And why was that? Could it be because the U.S. troops gave them confidence that we would remain and fight to defend the population? And his timetable of 16 months, a little squishier, seems to be in place. (And if his plan is dangerous, as commanders keep telling the media, does that matter?) In his world, Maliki hasn’t gotten his act together, nor does Obama recognize that Al Qaeda is in fact suffering a momentous defeat right there in Iraq.

Obama may have said it to the Iraqi foreign minister, but he isn’t yet saying to the voters that he is committing to success in Iraq. And when he says that McCain didn’t learn anything from his trips to Iraq? It makes you wonder whether Obama still can’t find any permanent benefit from the surge or reason to build on the success (which McCain recognized on those supposedly useless trips). Is he is just playing word games with “goals vs. timetables,” trying to wriggle out from a firm commitment?

If so, that would seem to be the worst of both political worlds. If he’s going to annoy the netroots, he might as well commit to success and get some credit for recognizing reality.

Noemie Emery writes:

But Iraq now, by almost every metric, is on the way up. Bush’s successor will have to work hard to lose it, and do so against the loud public protests of the troops who have done so much to win it.

But actually, it is fairly easy to give up the gains we have made: leave too early, appear irresolute, do nothing to assist in the second and third level issues that are cropping up, etc. And that is why is matters deeply whether Obama is serious about prevailing or just adhering as closely as possible to his withdrawal plans so as to avoid political embarrassment. Another candidate said he would rather lose an election than a war. It is far from clear that Obama feels the same way.

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