Re: McCain-Obama Tiff

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John McCain’s proposal that he and Barack Obama take a joint trip to Iraq is one of the worst ideas I have heard in a long time. These kinds of trips–known as congressional delegations, or “codels”–tend to be big productions. The security and logistics that would be involved in arranging for two presidential contenders to visit a war zone is mind-boggling.

Which doesn’t mean that going to Iraq is a bad idea for lawmakers. One, in particular, seems to do it in a way that maximizes the value and minimizes the fuss and distraction. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island has made a practice of visiting Iraq without a large entourage of aides and press–or, for that matter, other Senators. Unlike the Senators and other bigshots who stay in the Green Zone for news conferences and market visits, Reed–a West Point graduate and former company commander in the 82nd Airborne–has gone out at night with special operations forces. When he returns, he writes thoughtful reports of what he has learned. You can read his latest here: 2008_Iraq Trip Report 01-08.pdf

UPDATE: I asked Brian Bennett, a colleague here in the TIME Washington Bureau, to weigh in on this. Brian has been stationed in Baghdad for the magazine, and he has also gone along on these CODELs. So it seemed to me that he is the perfect guy to ask about the value of these trips, and how much these big shots really see of what is going on in Iraq. Here’s what Brian had to say:

These delegations do suck up a lot
of resources on the ground, and politicians staying for a few days get a
limited view of what’s going on there. Part of that is because the State
Department and the military don’t want a U.S. politician being kidnapped or
blown up on their watch. Visiting pols helicopter into the Green Zone and
have briefings with military commanders, diplomats and Iraqi political
figures. Some go to forward operating bases to shake hands with constituent
soldiers. As you pointed out, some members of congress like Senator Jack
Reed (D-Rhode Island) are known for pushing their State Department handlers
to allow them to go further afield. Congressman Chris Shays (R-Conn) is
another one known to be a headache for embassy regional security officers. I
once watched him send a Baghdad embassy lackey into a red-faced tantrum by
suggesting the trip itinerary be torn up to visit a newly-opened textile
factory in Anbar Province. He has returned from each of his 20 trips with a
laundry-list of recommendations for the SecDef. Here’s his most recent.

Even the most pushy codels have to know they’re getting just a soda-straw’s
view of things. But despite the limitations, getting out there and being on
the ground and looking soldiers and Iraqi politicians in the eye is better
than relying on briefings back home. Especially for Obama, who, even if he
keeps his impressions to himself, needs to see what’s changed since he was
there in January 2006. It’s going to matter a lot more if he winds up
sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.