A journey to Iraq: Where we’ve been and where we’re going

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus greets Barack Obama at Baghdad International Airport on Monday.
REUTERS/U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus greets Barack Obama at Baghdad International Airport on Monday.

It’s possible that something Barack Obama saw or heard during his visits to Iraq and Afghanistan will somehow inform or deepen his understanding of those twin quagmires, or cause him to reconsider basic aspects of his plan to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan as quickly as practicable, if he becomes president. But it’s pretty unlikely. And none of the breathless coverage of the trip is making any such claim.

Instead, as is so often the case, the mainstream media narrative is fundamentally a political analysis, revolving around the perception that Obama had to make the trip to make John McCain stop complaining that he hadn’t made the trip, and whether making the trip will help Obama address his perceived commander in chiefness gap versus McCain.

But suppose we seize on the trip as an opportunity to review whence we have come and whither we seem to be going in Iraq.

The original justifications for the war are in shambles. No WMD. No Saddam alliance with Al Qaida. But it is perhaps too seldom emphasized that these non-facts were pretty well established before the invasion, thanks largely to the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq with unimpeded access to all sites, until they were removed so the bombing could begin.

Obama, through genius or dumb luck, publicly and clearly opposed the war before it started. He was the only presidential candidate who had a serious chance to be nominated in 2008 who did so.

In phrasing it that way, I mean no disrespect to Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul or Mike Gravel, who ran for president and opposed the war from the beginning. But I do mean to note that every other congressman or senator who sought the presidency who was in office in the fall of 2002 supported the authorization for the use of force in Iraq. That list includes Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, Republican Sens. John McCain and Sam Brownback, and Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo. (The same is true, by the way, for 2004 Dem candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt — and, of course, the only serious Republican candidate in 2004, George W. Bush, except he didn’t exactly vote for it.)

Obama’s position on Iraq
But I do mean to give Obama the full credit he deserves having the prescience and the courage (I don’t mean to exaggerate how much courage it took; Obama was not the only politician to take this position, far from it) to say publicly and on the record in October 2002 that:

“Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States” and to say that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida.”

So, if you are among the 60 percent of Americans (Gallup Poll, mid-June) who now say the war turned out to be a mistake (37 percent said not a mistake, 3 percent said don’t know), you might want to Obama’s whole 2002 speech.

But we did have the war. Obama, who was an Illinois state senator when he gave that speech, was elected to the Senate in 2004. And it should be pointed out that he was not a prominent war critic in those early years, although it was not true, as Bill Clinton suggested during the primary campaign, that Obama retracted his original opposition to the war.

John McCain speaking Monday at a campaign picnic outside the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, Maine.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
John McCain speaking Monday at a campaign picnic outside the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, Maine.

McCain’s Iraq speech
A couple of days before the vote to authorize the war, McCain gave his reasons on the Senate floor for voting in favor. Reading the speech now even with the benefit of hindsight, it is eloquent if windy, and loaded with the kind of honor and duty talk we have come to expect from McCain. It conjures the time when the arguments in favor of the war seemed more persuasive. Here is an excerpt:

“Standing by while an odious regime with a history of support for terrorism develops weapons whose use by terrorists could literally kill millions of Americans is not a choice. It is an abdication. In this new era, preventive action to target rogue regimes is not only imaginable but necessary. Who would not have attacked Osama bin Laden’s network before September 11th had we realized that his intentions to bring harm to America were matched by the capability to do so? Who would not have heeded Churchill’s call to stand up to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, while Europe slept and appeasement fed the greatest threat to Western civilization the world had ever known? Who would not have supported Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 had we then known, as Israel knew, that Saddam was on the verge of developing the bomb?

“Opponents of this resolution offer many questions that are designed to persuade the President to wait before moving against Saddam Hussein. They have every right to do so. But there is one question I don’t want to be asked in the months and years ahead: ‘Why did you give Saddam Hussein time to harm us?’….

“Voting for a course of action that will send young Americans off to fight and die for their country is the most solemn responsibility every member of this Congress will undertake. Those of us who have the honor of bearing that responsibility must weigh our words, and consult our consciences carefully. By voting to give the President the authority to wage war, we assume and share his responsibility for the war’s outcome. Others have neither that burden nor that privilege.”

McCain has stood by that vote and that burden and deserves whatever points you get for steadfastness once you have made a commitment, even when the basis for the commitment has been undermined.

I have also heard McCain argue that where the candidates stood on the war in the past is not as important as their plan for the future. But his steadfastness makes it easy to assume that, however badly this war has gone, if confronted with similar circumstances in a future case with another enemy, he would make the same choice again.

Management of the war
McCain also claims substantial credit for vocally criticizing the management of the war, arguing for more troops, criticizing Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. I haven’t researched the details of this history, but as far I can tell, it’s true, and certainly part of McCain’s famed independence. Most of those who supported the war were reluctant to criticize the way it was being conducted. Not McCain.

McCain has built his current Iraq position around his early support for the so-called “surge,” his assertion that the surge is working and that Obama’s determination to begin withdrawing troops would jeopardize those gains.

It’s possible, and several commentators have begun to point this out, that the Obama-McCain difference on future policy in Iraq is subtle. They both favor reducing U.S. troops in Iraq and increasing them in Afghanistan. They both plan to leave residual forces in Iraq. The question is whether the withdrawals should be on a “timeline” (in Republican rhetoric, that’s an “arbitrary timeline”) or whether it should be based on condition on the ground as described by the commanders in the field.

The “no timeline” crowd took a big blow over recent days, most notably when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke favorably of Obama’s idea of getting the combat troops within 16 months.

There’s been a foofarah about whether al-Maliki was misquoted or possibly mis-translated, but the tape of the comment supports the idea that al-Maliki endorsed the Obama timetable.

If the essence of McCainism on Iraq is the opposition to timelines for withdrawal (which, for the past several years has also been the essence of Bushism on Iraq), then there’s this problem: President Bush still rejects timelines but says the withdrawal of troops can proceed on the basis of “joint aspirational time horizons.”

The McCain campaign has also been pointing to remarks made by Gen. David Petraeus, the living talisman of McCain’s “surge-yes; timelines-no” approach. Asked by NBC about the practicalities and advisability of Obama’s 16-month time frame, Petraeus said:

“It depends on the conditions, depends on the missions set, depends on the enemy. The enemy does get a vote and is sometimes an independent variable. Lots of different factors I think that would be tied up in that.”

There’s one word in the Petraeus quote that has needed saying during the months – or it is years- that the administration and its allies have been saying that the de-escalation schedule relied on what the commanders in the field said was possible. The word is “mission.”

Under the cherished American principle of civilian control over the military, it’s the commander in chief who gives the generals their mission. If a new commander-in-chief says the mission is to get a certain number of troops out, as safely as possible with as little damage to the Iraqi society as possible, according to a given timeline, the job of the commanders in the field is to accomplish that mission. Gen. Petraeus sounds like he gets that.

In the New York Post this morning, McCain published his summary of his differences with Obama on Iraq. It’s all about the surge. McCain was for it. Obama was critical. The surge has worked, McCain argues, the mission is succeeding, but:

“The surge’s success hasn’t changed Sen. Obama’s determination to pull out all of our combat troops. All that has changed is his rationale.

“In a New York Times op-ed and a speech last week he offered his ‘plan for Iraq’ (in advance of his first ‘fact-finding’ trip to Iraq in more than three years): It consisted of the same old proposal to pull all of our troops out within 16 months.

“In 2007, he wanted to withdraw because he thought the war was lost. If we’d taken his advice, the war would have been lost. Now he wants to withdraw because he thinks Iraqis no longer need our assistance.”

In the piece (which the Post notes was rejected by the New York Times), McCain adds his rather weak spin on what Maliki said, claiming that Obama: “makes it sound as if Maliki has endorsed his timetable — when the Iraqi prime minister has merely said that he’d like a plan for the eventual withdrawal of US troops at some unspecified future point.”

The actual quote, from the tape of interview, acquired and translated by the Times, goes:

“Obama’s remarks that – if he takes office – in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/23/2008 - 08:15 pm.

    First,
    remember that ‘Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’ (Bush calls it Al Qaeda in Iraq because he can’t pronounce Mesopotamia) is a small fringe group only tenuously connected to the original Al Qaeda located in Pakistan and Afghanistan; the one that actually attacked us.
    It was never the main source of violence in Iraq, and the other Sunnis abandoned it when they discovered its impotence.
    The name issue raises an important point:
    The reason for the choice of the name ‘Mesopotamia’ is that that was the historical designation of that region. There was no ‘Iraq’ until the British created it after WWI out of incompatible Shia, Sunni and Kurdish provinces of the defunct Ottoman empire.
    This is the problem we’re facing today: nation building in the most literal sense. There will be am Iraqi nation only if we create one, and to do it we will have to overcome thousand year old tribal identities, which are more real to most Iraqis than any sense of Iraqi nationhood.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/23/2008 - 02:35 pm.

    Eric, if we’d announced in Jan 07 that we’d be withdrawing most troops in 16 months, what do you think would have been on the insurgency? Would tribal leaders have possibly dared turn against Al Qaeda? It’s very doubtful isn’t it? They would have been hanging themselves out to dry.
    Instead we’re in a place where we can confidently declare victory. Now we can argue over what levels should be there for the future, if any. That argument (and this situation) was unthinkable 18 months ago.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/23/2008 - 08:27 am.

    Eric, I’ve got to take exception with a couple of things here. The lack of WMD was not well known before the invasion. It was widely believed by the US intelligence community as well as other worldwide ones. True, inspectors hadn’t found anything but that’s a flaw with relying on inspectors. You can never be certain if they’ve looked in the right places. Saddam didn’t give them unfettered access. IIRC, he frustrated their schedule and demanded that his presidential palaces were off limits. In hindsight, we can all see that there were no WMD but we didn’t know it then.
    I also noticed that your review left out a rather crucial bit of the Iraq story. The surge that Obama opposed and McCain supported is the single biggest reason that we’re at a point today where we can talk about withdrawing soldiers without national humiliation. Yes, the future is important and I understand that the discussion has moved on to what, if any, troop levels should be left in Iraq. But to just glide by the process that made this particular discussion possible seems odd. Even as all other candidates screwed up the initial decision, Obama screwed up that judgment call and we shouldn’t just ignore that.

  4. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/23/2008 - 12:52 pm.

    Eric, I follow your reasoning about inspectors but I disagree with your conclusion. There were many considerations about the timing, especially not wanting major combat to take place during the hot months. They didn’t want coalition forces to sit in Kuwait for years on end. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that of course we should have waited. If we could go back in time and confidently tie Saddam down with inspectors, that would probably be best. That should be foremost in our minds with Iran, too.

  5. Submitted by Eric Black on 07/23/2008 - 11:13 am.

    Hey Peder,
    On the pre-war inspections issue:
    Of course you’re right that you can never be sure whether trained inspectors have looked everywhere. But it is by far the best possible source of intelligence. The administration said it knew where the weapons were. They were telling the inspectors where to look. The whole country was under aerial surveillance, which would certainly diminish the ability to move the weapons around.
    And I believe you are wrong about the access. By the end of the process, the inspectors had access, on no advance notice, to the presidential palaces and every other site they requested. Here’s a link on that point.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2660201.stm
    The head of the inspections, Hans Blix, told the U.S. and the U.N. that he was getting excellent cooperation from the Iraqis at that point. His only complaint was that the Iraqis couldn’t produce documentation that they had destroyed all the weapons they had previously been known to possess. Under these circumstances, to order the inspectors out so the bombing and invasion could being, to me, amounts to an admission that the weapons were NOT the issue, at least by that point.
    You have the inspectors on the ground, with full access to all sites. At the very least,let them keep looking. Saddam is not going to make any progress on his nuclear ambitions under these circumstances.
    On the Obama surge position point: You may be right, perhaps I should have said more about it. There is no question that Obama opposed the surge or that McCain advocated before it was fashionable.
    There seems to be no dispute that the surge contributed significantly to the decline in violence, although there a dispute about what portion of the improvement is attributable to the surge versus the decision of the Anbar Sunni tribes to turn against the insurgents versus the truce declared by the Mehdi Army. All three contributed.
    cheers, eb

  6. Submitted by Mike Finley on 07/22/2008 - 11:22 am.

    This is a great column, remembering the rhetoric that led us into war.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/22/2008 - 01:19 pm.

    In June 2006, Iraq created a peace plan that included a call for a firm timetable for withdrawal (not its first such request). In early June 2008, two Iraqi politicians brought a letter to Rep.Delahunt (D-MA)to share with the House Committee on Foreign Relations. Signed by a majority of Iraq’s parliament, the letter reads, in part:

    “The majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying American military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq.”
    (Reuters June 4, 2008)

    Iraq is ready for the sovereignty to which it is entitled when IT says it is ready, not when WE say.
    Obviously Bush/McCain et al have their eyes on those oil leases for US and British companies (with 75% of the profits for decades). Obama, on the other hand, seems to see what is really going on and will respond to Iraq’s right to determine its own future.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/22/2008 - 03:14 pm.

    The purported ‘success’ of the surge depends on what its originally stated purpose was.
    If that purpose (and I think that this is supported by the record) is to establish political stability in Iraq so that the Sunni and Shia communities are united as a single polity, than the surge has not succeeded.
    Large numbers of Iraqis are still in exile in Syria and Jordan, unable to safely return to their communities.
    Formerly mixed communities have become exclusive Shia or Sunni.
    At best they are killing each other less frequently, partly because the separation has resulted in fewer targets.
    The surge is a success only in the sense that we have successfully occupied some of the larger cities in Iraq and suppressed ethnic fighting.
    As soon as we leave ….

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