The Wall Street Journal editors remark:
In a week of symbolic breaks with the ancien regime, President Obama called in U.S. war commanders last Wednesday to signal his desire to get out of Iraq. Then, meeting over, he issued a vague statement about planning “a responsible military drawdown” that omitted mention of his campaign promise to pull out within 16 months.
For Iraq’s sake, long may such obfuscation reign. The country faces big tests in the coming year, starting with provincial elections on Saturday. Robust American engagement guided Iraq out of its bloodiest days in 2006. The military commanders who implemented the successful surge now counsel against hasty withdrawal, lest those gains be lost. This is a potential win-win for Mr. Obama. If Iraq emerges from 2009 as a stronger democracy, the White House could then reduce troop levels with little risk of relapse. The President, who prospered in the Democratic primaries thanks to his antiwar stance, will reap the strategic benefit. Let historians appreciate the irony.
Well, I suppose concealing our intentions, being less than candid with the American people and declining to inspire the troops for the remainder of their mission is one way to go about completing the Iraq War mission. But it may not be the best. Certainly, if the alternative is a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops and increased instability then opacity is the better course. Nevertheless, is that really the only option?
The President should be clear about our military missions and commitment to them. Silence or vagueness communicate a lack of seriousness and do not inspire those serving the President to stay on task. What does he say when Democrats want to drastically cut funds? Well, we um. . . are in the process of leaving Iraq to the Iraqis? Not very compelling. And one might perceive that as a signal to use funds and resources elsewhere. And should our regional allies become concerned about an uptick in violence, will the President put them at ease and inspire confidence by mumbling something about ending “Bush’s war”?
It is impossible for the President to successfully complete our job there — which is to leave a stable, independent country that is not a haven for terrorists — without being definitive about what our job is. After all, the work of our troops is not yet complete:
After Saturday’s local elections, the majority Shiites will willingly share power with Sunnis, who boycotted the last poll in 2005. Sunnis have chosen to come back into the fold through the ballot box, along the way helping to give birth to vibrant retail politics. Some 14,000 candidates from 400 parties battle for 440 seats on 14 (of 18) provincial councils. There will also be a referendum on the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement this summer, and parliamentary elections by the end of the year.
American GIs can make sure these elections come off smoothly and are accepted broadly as legitimate. The current campaign has seen an uptick in suicide attacks and bombings, showing that diehard Sunni insurgents and Iran-backed militias still want to sabotage democracy in Mesopotamia. Iran lost its fight to stop the U.S. forces deal last year and is sure to try again. A Shiite democracy on its border is an existential rebuke to the mullahs. Military commanders are bracing for Iran to stir up trouble in the months ahead, particularly in the south. By helping Iraq resist this powerplay, Mr. Obama will only strengthen his hand for his promised diplomacy with Tehran.
It behooves the President to say what he means and explain to all concerned — our military, regional allies, foes and the Iraqis — just what we are up to. Oh, and isn’t that what transparency in government is all about?