In the Arena

And Still More Obama: On Iraq

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Barack Obama’s Big Iraq speech–a day after his Big Race speech–is something of a mixed bag. He is still insisting that he can pull most US troops out of Iraq in 16 months, which his former advisor Samantha Power accurately described as “a best case scenario.”

But the real value of Obama’s speech was his effort to put Iraq into a larger security context–something Clinton didn’t do nearly as well when she gave her Iraq speech a few days ago. He was especially effective when it came to John McCain’s failure of vision on this issue:

If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss – tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That’s why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue – as he did last year – that we couldn’t leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can’t leave Iraq because violence is down.

When you have no overarching strategy, there is no clear definition of success. Success comes to be defined as the ability to maintain a flawed policy indefinitely. Here is the truth: fighting a war without end will not force the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. And fighting in a war without end will not make the American people safer.

It is interesting that Obama mentions only in passing the $12 billion per month cost of the war. A new poll suggests that most Americans believe the cost of the war is hurting the economy. Clearly, Iraq is now an economic as well as a security issue, but Obama chooses to place his emphasis on what he calls a “security gap”–and he makes a stronger case for it than John F. Kennedy made for his bogus “missile gap” in the 1960 election. The security gap, Obama says, has been caused by the war in Iraq, which has empowered Iran and diverted our attention from the very real Al Qaeda threat growing in Pakistan:

The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America’s enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot. Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have all distorted and derided this position, suggesting that I would invade or bomb Pakistan…It is precisely this kind of political point-scoring that has opened up the security gap in this country. We have a security gap when candidates say they will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but refuse to follow him where he actually goes. What we need in our next Commander in Chief is not a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality or empty rhetoric about 3AM phone calls. What we need is a pragmatic strategy that focuses on fighting our real enemies, rebuilding alliances, and renewing our engagement with the world’s people.

This is good, strongly argued stuff. It would be interesting to see how McCain would rebut it–but, as Obama says, McCain has had practically nothing to say about the strategic challenges facing the U.S. as a result of the foolish Bush national security policy of the past seven years.

Vicious Maniac asks…

Joe, do you believe the reason Big News Media such as CNN went to sleep on the Iraq War-run-up, at times outright hyping it, for ratings? As in, they turned a blind eye to the obvious in exchange for what was guaranteed to be a ratings bonanza 5 years running now?

No, Vic. It’s a common misconception that war sells. It doesn’t. It’s disastrous, in fact–advertisers simply don’t want to be associated with it. The main reason why the media weren’t more critical in the runup to the war was a failure to understand history. I wrote this in a column about two months before the war began:

There should be no illusions about the difficulty of Mesopotamian nation building. It has been attempted on this same ground many times before, by many other superpowers, and none — none — has ever succeeded. The last to try was England. Winston Churchill, a superhawk hero of the 20th century, ran the occupation, saw the futility of it and favored retreat. “We are paying 8 millions a year,” he wrote his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in 1922, “for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.”

Unfortunately, yours truly got a little wobbly on the war as the invasion approached. A ridiculous weakness, in retrospect, given the fact that I was aware of the likely futility of the operation.