Iraq, Obama and the Definition of Success

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“As president, I set the mission,” says Barack Obama. “The mission that I will set for the generals is to bring this war to a close.” Sounds simple enough. But for some reason, no one in Washington, especially in the political press, is treating it simply. Why? Well for starters, Obama has been very careful in discussing this issue. He tends to use the same, almost legalistic, phrases over and over again, which is a warning sign for us reporters. Politicians who stick close to scripts are often not telling you what they seem to be telling you, or they are only telling you what they think they need to tell you. Either way, alarm bells.

So the questions come. Obama says he wants to remove one to two brigades a month, with the goal of removing combat troops within 16 months of taking office. But he also says, he will listen to the generals and “take facts on the ground into account.” Furthermore, he says America will continue to be responsible for keeping Iraq from catastrophe. “We have a strategic interest in Iraq and making sure it doesn’t collapse,” he said last week, in his second set of comments in one day on the issue.

Now this construction adds a whole lot of subjective judgement to the objective goal of leaving Iraq in the first 16 months. How will Obama judge a collapse of Iraq? What if the neighborhood-by-neighborhood ethnic cleansing begins again? What if the Sadr militia returns to the streets? What if the Sunni militias we support declare opposition to the Baghdad government? What if the Kurds announce their intention to leave the government? What if Iran doubles down on its proxy effort in Iraq? What if Al Qaeda in Iraq reconstitutes? Of course, it’s possible that none of this happens, or that the problems will be limited in scope and made up for by a new political process. But there are a lot of Iraq experts, many of them who have been longtime critics of the war, who will tell you otherwise.

On the campaign trail, Obama does not like to speculate about all these what ifs, even though he has clearly left himself the ability to react to problems as they occur. And my guess is that as we proceed over the coming campaign, these what ifs will be swept aside. McCain will say Obama is willing to lose. Obama will say McCain was wrong about the war from the start. And they will disagree about the effect of leaving Iraq. Then the whole debate in the press will become abstract. Do voters want Obama-like change in Iraq policy? Or do they want the national security experience of McCain?

If we want to get a handle on the actual policy thinking of Obama and McCain, it might be better to go back to the April hearings that brought Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker to the Senate. There, the two candidates described clearly different views of the goals they were willing to accept in Iraq. I shall explain these differences after the jump. . .

For McCain, the Iraq war was still mostly an all or nothing proposition, victory or defeat. His goal: “A peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists.” For Obama, the war in Iraq was a series of shades of gray. I found the following exchange with Crocker far more telling of Obama’s thoughts on Iraq than anything the Democrat has said on the stump, so please indulge the lengthy quotation:

SEN. OBAMA: There’s a bipartisan consensus that we have finite resources. Our military is overstretched and the Pentagon has acknowledged it. Our — the amount of money that we are spending is hemorrhaging our budget and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I think, is feeling a lot more secure as long as we’re focused in Iraq and not on Afghanistan. When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goals tightly and modestly. And so my final — and I’ll even pose us a question and you — I won’t — you don’t necessarily have to answer, maybe it’s a rhetorical question. If we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It’s obviously not perfect. There’s still violence. There’s still some traces of al Qaeda. Iran has influence, more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops have been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria? Or would that not be good enough and we have to — we’d have to devote even more resources to it?

AMB. CROCKER: Senator, I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.I think —

SEN. BIDEN: That wasn’t the question.

SEN. OBAMA: No, no, that wasn’t the question. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint. That’s what all of us have been trying to get to. See, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high — no traces of al Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution; a highly effective Iraqi government; a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi- sectarian, functioning democracy; no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don’t like — then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years. If on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo, but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence; there’s still corruption, but the country’s struggling along but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an al Qaeda base; that seems, to me, an achievable goal within a measurable time frame.And that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at. And we haven’t been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

AMB. CROCKER: And that’s because, Senator, it is a, I mean, don’t like to sound like a broken record.

SEN. OBAMA: I understand.

AMB. CROCKER: But this is hard and this is complicated.I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there, but where they and we would have a fair certitude that again they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then clearly our profile, our presence, diminishes markedly. But that’s not where we are now.

Until one of the candidates goes off script–don’t hold your breath–this set of April hearings may be the clearest view into the choice voters face. For practical reasons, including the war in Afghanistan, Obama has set his goal posts for Iraq lower than McCain. He seems to have not yet decided exactly how low. He wants to talk to the generals first. But he is more willing to acknowledge the significant costs of our continued presence, and more willing to leave Iraq in a low-grade mess of some sort. This may not mean a withdrawal in 16 months to the day, but it does offer a very different Iraq policy than the one embraced by McCain.