Everyone, it seems, has advice on Iraq for Sen. Barack Obama. The presumptive Democratic nominee got where he is in large part because of his anti-war stance. Yet he now finds himself facing a changed set of facts on the ground as the surge has reduced, at least temporarily, the level of violence.
He can alter or “refine” his position on withdrawal, as he attempted to do last week, and be accused of “flip flopping” or he can hold fast and ignore changes in the situation. Or, as several commentators suggested, he can give a major speech on Iraq, much as he did on race during the campaign. Some even took a stab at the speechwriting.
The situation is complicated by the Iraqi government for the first time suggesting the idea of “setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington,” according to Reuters.
One piece of advice for Obama comes from Fareed Zakaria, who writes in Newsweek:
“Barack Obama needs to give a speech about Iraq. Otherwise he will find himself in the unusual position of having being prescient about the war in 2002 and yet being overtaken by events in 2008. The most important reason to do this is not political. Iraq is fading in importance for the public and, to the extent that it matters as an electoral issue, most people agree with Obama’s judgment that the war was not worth fighting. The reason to lay out his approach to Iraq is that, were he elected, the war would be his biggest and most immediate problem. He will need to implement a serious policy on Iraq, one that is consistent with his long-held views but is also informed by the conditions on the ground today.”
And then Zakaria drafts the speech he would have Obama deliver:
“I have been a longstanding opponent of the Iraq War. But I am a passionate supporter of the Iraqi people. They deserve a decent future after decades of tyranny and five years of chaos. The United States must continue its assistance and engagement with Iraq on a whole range of issues—economic, administrative and security-related… If circumstances require, we will have a small presence in the country to fight Al Qaeda, train the Iraqi Army, protect American interests and provide humanitarian assistance. But it will be small and it will be temporary—which is also as the Iraqi people seem to wish.
“Another significant difference between Senator McCain and me is that I would couple the reduction in our military forces in Iraq with a diplomatic surge, not just to push the Iraqis to make deals, but also to get its neighbors more productively involved in Iraq. It is a sign of our neglect of diplomacy that today, five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, only two Arab governments have pledged to name an ambassador to Baghdad…We need to engage with all Iraq’s neighbors—including Syria and Iran—to create a lasting political stability that is supported in the region. But finally, I would return to my original concerns. General Petraeus has successfully executed the task he was given, to shore up a collapsing situation in Iraq. But his responsibility was Iraq. His new area of operation stretches from the Arab world into Pakistan and Afghanistan. There lie the most dangerous and immediate threats to American security. The Taliban is enjoying its greatest resurgence since 9/11. Former U.S. commander Gen. Dan McNeill has said we need at least two more combat brigades to fight it. But there are literally no brigades to spare because of our massive commitment in Iraq.”
Veteran New Yorker war correspondent George Packer, who has written a book and a play about Iraq, offers this analysis of Obama’s situation:
“The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political class. Accordingly, Obama, on the night that he proclaimed himself the nominee, in St. Paul, made a familiar declaration: ‘Start leaving we must. It’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.’…Yet, as exhausted as the public is with the war, a candidate who seems heedless of progress in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism, which John McCain’s campaign will connect to its broader theme of Obama’s inexperience in and weakness on national security. The relative success of the surge is one of the few issues going McCain’s way; we’ll be hearing about it more and more between now and November, and it might sway some centrist voters who have doubts about Obama.”
And then Packer, too, offers some speechwriting help.
“Obama has shown, with his speech on race, that he has a talent for candor. One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, ‘That was always a goal, not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don’t close my eyes—I adapt.’ He could detail in his speeches the functions that American troops and diplomats can continue to perform even as our primary combat role recedes: training and advising, counterterrorism, brokering deals among Iraqi factions, checking their expansionist impulses, opening talks with our enemies in the region…If Obama truly wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an honorable way to end.”
Not all the commentators are confident in Obama’s ability to explain his position. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes:
“Two weeks ago, I predicted that by Election Day Obama will have erased all meaningful differences with McCain on withdrawal from Iraq. I underestimated Obama’s cynicism. He will make the move much sooner. He will use his upcoming Iraq trip to finally acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and to formally abandon his primary season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops. The shift has already begun. Yesterday [July 3], he said that his ‘original position’ on withdrawal has always been that ‘we’ve got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.’ And that ‘when I go to Iraq … I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.’ He hasn’t even gone to Iraq and the flip is almost complete. All that’s left to say is that the 16-month time frame remains his goal but that he will, of course, take into account the situation on the ground and the recommendation of his generals in deciding whether the withdrawal is to occur later or even sooner. Done.”
But liberal E.J. Dionne cautions Obama about straying too far from his original anti-war stance:
“Because Obama’s strongest argument for himself on foreign policy rests on his sound judgment in opposing the war from the beginning, any appearance of waffling on the issue is especially dangerous. Republicans are pressing Obama on Iraq because they know that any new moves he makes will be interpreted, fairly or not, as a change in position and that this will hurt him with two groups: the antiwar base of the Democratic Party and independent voters, many of whom are just tuning in to the campaign…
“Over the past week, Obama has been crafty in the way he has sought the political middle ground. He has emphasized his ‘values’ and touted his patriotism, his call to service and his faith….Voters accept that a president may alter the details of campaign promises. What they expect is a clear sense of the direction he will take. At the moment, voters know that John McCain is far more likely than Barack Obama to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely. Obama would be foolish to blur that distinction.”
Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.