Terms of (Dis)Engagement

U.S. Army troops search a home in Sa'ada north of Baghdad on July 7.
U.S. Army troops search a home in Sa'ada north of Baghdad on July 7. (By Maya Alleruzzo -- Associated Press)
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 14, 2008

Barack Obama has been teetering between two imperatives on Iraq. He needs to adjust his withdrawal plan, drawn up more than 18 months ago, to the dramatic changes on the ground during the past year -- so that he will have the political mandate to pursue a sensible policy if he becomes commander in chief. But he also needs to keep his antiwar base happy and not blur what looks like a big contrast between his strategy and that of John McCain.

This month he learned that his dilemma can't be easily finessed. When he tried hinting that he would "refine" his policy based on "more information" from "commanders on the ground," the blowback was so fierce he had to hold a second news conference the same day denying that he had altered his scheme to withdraw all U.S. combat forces within 16 months of taking office.

So what now? Obama's easy way out is to stick to the 16-month timetable through the fall campaign, while subtly altering the justification for it. He's already made a start: Before, he said the forced march out was needed to extract U.S. troops from a "sectarian civil war." Now, they will be coming out because withdrawal will be consistent with "the need to maintain stability," as he put it on July 3. It's at least possible -- or possible enough for a political campaign -- that regular combat units would no longer be needed for "stability" by the middle of 2010.

Still, there's a better way for Obama to solve his Iraq problem -- one that is honest about the state and stakes of the war but still sharply differentiates him from McCain. What's more, it's a solution dreamed up by Democrats who are among the candidate's advisers on defense. As outlined by Michelle Flournoy, Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security, the strategy would focus on the biggest difference between the presidential candidates -- which is not about troop withdrawals but about the role the United States should play in Iraq five or 10 years from now.

Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official during the Clinton administration, points out that in the short term, the differences between Obama and McCain are mostly illusory. The next president will probably inherit an American force in Iraq of 130,000 to 140,000 troops -- and either one would probably reduce that number to about 100,000 in 2009. McCain will be obliged to remove at least some troops because of the strain on the military and the need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan. But Obama will find it hard to withdraw more than five brigades his first year even if he wants to. "There are limits to how quickly you can draw down without risking real chaos," Flournoy said.

That doesn't mean Obama's Iraq policy would be the same as McCain's in 2009. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and senior aides recently have begun talking about negotiating a withdrawal timetable ending in 2011 or 2012, well after Obama's end point but before McCain's 2013 goal for withdrawing "most" troops. McCain's likely response, Flournoy says, would be to "tell the Iraqis they have to convince us we can go." Obama would come from the other direction: "Convince us we should stay."

The argument of Flournoy's team is simply that Obama should be open to Iraqi arguments -- that an American withdrawal should not be dictated in Washington but carefully negotiated with the Iraqi government. A time extension could be used as leverage to obtain more progress, such as steps by Maliki toward a durable reconciliation with Sunni leaders. The Democratic experts call their approach "conditional engagement," as opposed to either the "unconditional engagement" of McCain or the "unconditional disengagement" that Obama has mostly espoused.

Allowing withdrawal to become a matter of negotiation would require a noticeable shift by Obama. But it also would open up the most vital debate about Iraq -- what the nature of U.S. engagement there should be after the war ends. As Flournoy sees it, McCain is likely to see Iraq as a base for advancing U.S. strategic interests in the region, starting with the containment of Iran. That's why he's been comparing Iraq to Germany and South Korea and saying U.S. troops could stay for 100 years. In contrast, even a modified Obama policy would rule out an American troop presence once Iraq were stabilized, on the theory that a long-term base would do more harm than good.

"Part of the fleshing out on the Democratic side is defining what's the long-term relationship with Iraq," says Flournoy. It's a task Obama would be wise to take on before the election -- and that might make his contrast with McCain look smart as well as sharp.

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