Perrspectives - Bringing light to Darkness

Obama's Winning Hand on Iraq

July 13, 2008

The news that President Bush will begin drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq below pre-surge levels this fall is being greeted as an October surprise for John McCain. But even with the successes of the surge, events on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan are validating Barack Obama's call for a strategic refocus on Afghanistan. The Pentagon's admission of the urgent need to shift troops to counter the rising Al Qaeda threat along the Pakistan frontier, combined with the Iraqi government's growing insistence on a timetable for American withdrawal, means it is John McCain, and not Barack Obama, who finds himself in a box over the future of Iraq.
To be sure, there has been progress in Iraq since President Bush initiated the surge in January 2007. U.S. casualties are down dramatically while attacks against Iraqi civilians have dropped off as well. The "Sons of Iraq" program, while not without long term risks for the Shiite government in Baghdad, has helped debilitate the Sunni insurgency. After its initial disasters earlier this spring, the growing - and increasingly confident - Iraqi security forces rebounded in campaigns against the Mahdi army militias in Basra and Sadr City. And a joint American-Iraqi assault on Mosul devastated what's left of the Al Qaeda cadres in Iraq. (It is worth noting that the GAO disagreed with the White House's assessment earlier this month that 15 of 18 surge benchmarks had been met, calling progress in Iraq "fragile, reversible and uneven.")
Given John McCain's full-throated support for the surge and a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, it's no wonder that the New York Times predictably concluded that a September reduction to 120,000 troops in Iraq would produce a political windfall for McCain:

Any troop reductions announced in the heat of the presidential election could blur the sharp differences between the candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, over how long to stay in Iraq. But the political benefit might go more to Mr. McCain than Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain is an avid supporter of the current strategy in Iraq. Any reduction would indicate that that strategy has worked and could defuse antiwar sentiment among voters.

Not necessarily. And certainly not if Obama campaign makes the case that their man had America's national security priorities right not just in 2002, but today and going forward.
In contrast to John McCain's 100 year U.S. presence in Iraq, Barack Obama has focused like a laser beam on fighting the global threat from Al Qaeda where it lives - along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Obama put it just last month:

"The people who were responsible for murdering 3,000 Americans on 9/11 have not been brought to justice. They are Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and their sponsors - the Taliban. They were in Afghanistan. And yet George Bush and John McCain decided in 2002 that we should take our eye off of Afghanistan so that we could invade and occupy a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11...
...Here are the results of their policy. Osama bin Laden and his top leadership - the people who murdered 3000 Americans - have a safe-haven in northwest Pakistan, where they operate with such freedom of action that they can still put out hate-filled audiotapes to the outside world. That's the result of the Bush-McCain approach to the war on terrorism.
We had al Qaeda and the Taliban on the run back in 2002. But then we diverted military, intelligence, financial, and diplomatic resources to Iraq. And yet Senator McCain has said as recently as this April that, 'Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.' I think that just shows a dangerous misjudgment of the facts, and a stubborn determination to ignore the need to finish the fight in Afghanistan."

And to be sure, President Bush's senior leadership at the Pentagon appears to agree with Obama. While Bush just last week suggested more troops were needed in Afghanistan, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen acknowledged that was impossible until the U.S. began to draw down its forces in Iraq:

"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."

No doubt, those forces are surely needed there. The July 2007 NIE warned of a renewed Al Qaeda threat from its firmly entrenched safe haven in the Pakistani tribal areas (a reality which even President Bush was forced to acknowledge). While John McCain attacked Barack Obama over his willingness to launch unilateral strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, the Bush administration by February had adopted Obama's approach. By June 2008, American casualties reached their highest level in the seven year war in Afghanistan. (Just today, 9 more U.S. troops were killed and 15 more wounded in a Taliban assault on an American outpost near the Pakistan border.) With the situation deteriorating on the ground, 2,200 U.S. Marines have had their tours extended in Afghanistan, while the Times reports as many as 10,000 more American troops will join the 31,000 already deployed there.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, the negotiations over a new status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq have John McCain into a corner. McCain, after all, proclaimed in 2004 that "I think it's obvious that we would have to leave" if asked by a sovereign, democratically-elected Iraqi government. Now that is exactly what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his foreign minister Mouwafak al-Rubaie are demanding:

"Our stance in the negotiations underway with the American side will be strong...We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq."

As the Washington Post detailed this morning, the talks have essentially broken down and the prospects of a long-term agreement for the commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq with them, replaced instead by a temporary "bridge" extending the American presence into 2009:

The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord -- blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task -- deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, "we are talking about dates," acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders "are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there...Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever."

Which is political problem for John McCain. On Tuesday, McCain pushed back on the Iraqi demands for a U.S. departure timeline, only to have his campaign scramble on Wednesday to spin the Iraqis' rejection of a long-term American presence. As the Post noted:

He has said he hopes to bring U.S. combat troops home by 2013 but has insisted that any timeline or lessening of U.S. control over its own operations would undercut recent military gains and aid U.S. enemies.

So the outlines of Barack Obama's winning formula of strategic refocus from Iraq to Afghanistan are clear:

  • Finish the Job in Afghanistan. The overriding terrorist threat to the United States comes from Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rising violence there along with the growing stability (and diminution of Al Qaeda in Iraq) makes the shift of American military resources a priority.
  • No Permanent Presence in Iraq. John McCain notwithstanding, Iraq is not Germany, Japan or South Korea. In all three, the United States protects its allies against external enemies while projecting American power in their respective regions. The U.S. contingent in South Korea acts as a trip wire that would trigger massive American retaliation should Pyongyang attack. The U.S. has other bases throughout the Middle East with which to continue to pound Al Qaeda in Iraq and to deter Iran. American national security requirements, and not the lack of U.S. casualties (as John McCain insists), should drive discussions of a perpetual military commitment in Iraq - or anywhere else.
  • No Al Qaeda Safe Havens in Iraq or Afghanistan. As Al Qaeda falters in Iraq, Bin Laden and his allies are resurgent along the Afghan-Pakistani border. After seven years of failure by the Bush administration, the United States must not allow Al Qaeda to entrench sanctuaries in either.
  • Not a Referee or a Bodyguard in Baghdad. Over time, the government of Nouri al-Maliki may yet face renewed threats from Sunni factions currently mollified by the American "Sons of Iraq" program or from Shiite rivals like Moqtada al-Sadr. As the Unites States draws down its forces over the next 12 to 24 months, the top American priority there should be to prevent the resurgence of Al Qaeda. The American mission is not to provide a permanent bodyguard for Maliki, or to play referee in any future sectarian conflict that might emerge.

There is, of course, one additional point the Obama campaign should make in the debate over Iraq. John McCain was sadly wrong at almost every turn in promoting the invasion and occupation of Iraq. From his predictions of a short war and claims U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators to his announcements of mission accomplished, his ongoing confusion over friend and foe in Iraq and so much more, McCain's is an unbroken legacy of error.
UPDATE 1: In Monday's New York Times, Barack Obama lays out his case in an op-ed titled, "My Plan for Iraq."
UPDATE 2: On Tuesday, Obama delivered a major address on Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. national security.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

Follow Us

© 2004 - 
 Perrspectives. All Rights Reserved.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram