In the Arena


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You have to laugh about the denizens of the political right who are shocked at Barack Obama’s moderation: who were they expecting for Secretary of Defense, Louis Farrakhan? Jeremiah Wright at State? Much of this is a result of the right drinking its own koolaid: the mythology of Obama being some sort of crypto-lefty, “associated” with people like William Ayres and Wright, rather than the moderate realist who sent signals throughout the campaign that he was looking to people like Gates and Jones to join his team.

And now we have Max Boot “gobsmacked” by the excellent Obama security choices, which Boot sees as a sign that Obama is going to have a foreign policy not so distant from, well, neoconservatism:

This all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the unconditional summits with dictators, and other foolishness that once emanated from the Obama campaign. His appointments suggest that, if anything, his administration will have a Reapolitiker, rather than a liberal, bent, although Clinton and Steinberg at State should be powerful voices for “neo-liberalism” which is not so different in many respects from “neo-conservativism”.

There are several problems with this. First of all, a 16-month withdrawal timetable would get you somewhere into the middle of 2010, well within the ballpark of the Iraqi government’s own timetable–but then, Obama never said that 16 months was rock solid. He always said it was flexible, dependent upon events on the ground. Right now, the open question is how backloaded the withdrawal will be. Some–like General Jack Kean, security expert Ken Pollack and others–would like to see the bulk of the troops withdrawn only after the Iraqis have their regional and national elections in 2009. Others want a steady withdrawal, starting in January, with enough troops withdrawn and their replacements sent to Afghanistan in order to secure the crucial Afghan elections in September 2009. My guess is the a compromise will be worked out between the two groups, with two or three combat brigade in Afghanistan by late spring…and that we’ll be down to a residual force in Iraq months before 2011 rolls around. (By the way, if my guess is accurate, the Army should have those brigades training right now for mountains rather than deserts. I’ve spoken with several senior military officers who are quite concerned that this hasn’t yet happened. )

Second, the notion of having immediate summits with our enemies–especially Mahmoud Ahmadinejad– was another right-wing distortion of Obama’s actual position, which was to initiate lower level talks and gradually build to summits that would not have crippling preconditions (such as the Bush Administration’s insistence that the Iranians stop creating nuclear fuel). Obama’s campaign position still stands.

Finally, a more careful look at the new team will indicate that people like Clinton, Jones and Gates have never supported the sort of bellicose foreign policy that John McCain and his neoconservative staff was offering. Gates was quietly opposed to permanent bases in Iraq and supportive of increased contact with Iran and a new emphasis on the situation in Afghanistan. Gates’ new Obama-approved staff–people like Richard Danzig and Michele Flournoy–are big fans of counterinsurgency warfare a la Petraeus, but like Petraeus (and unlike McCain) will be careful not to over-apply the “lessons” of Iraq in a very different theater. Jones was so opposed to the war in Iraq that he refused to serve as Centcom Commander and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when asked by Bush. He was brutally honest about the difficulties of nation-building in Iraq and the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. He signed an international petition against the Bush Administration’s use of torture.

What Boot and the neocons will have to come to terms with now is that they were wrong and they have lost. There is a new national security alliance between multilateralist Democrats and realist Republicans–an alliance that precludes the witless bellicosity of the neoconservative right and the small strain of pacifist idealists on the left. The policy of the new administration will favor diplomacy over the use of force. That is not to say that Obama will never use force–but when he does, the chances are he’ll likely known the difference between the local Shi’ites and Sunnis, Tajiks and Pashtuns. And so will his team.

And furthermore: Fred Kaplan on why Gates is an excellent choice.