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The Iron Timetable
Whether the war in Iraq is being lost or won, Barack Obama's strategy remains unchanged.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

BARACK OBAMA yesterday accused President Bush and Sen. John McCain of rigidity on Iraq: "They said we couldn't leave when violence was up, they say we can't leave when violence is down." Mr. Obama then confirmed his own foolish consistency. Early last year, when the war was at its peak, the Democratic candidate proposed a timetable for withdrawing all U.S. combat forces in slightly more than a year. Yesterday, with bloodshed at its lowest level since the war began, Mr. Obama endorsed the same plan. After hinting earlier this month that he might "refine" his Iraq strategy after visiting the country and listening to commanders, Mr. Obama appears to have decided that sticking to his arbitrary, 16-month timetable is more important than adjusting to the dramatic changes in Iraq.

Mr. Obama's charge against the Republicans was not entirely fair, since Mr. Bush has overseen the withdrawal of five American brigades from Iraq this year, and Mr. McCain has suggested that he would bring most of the rest of the troops home by early 2013. Mr. Obama's timeline would end in the summer of 2010, a year or two before the earliest dates proposed recently by members of the Iraqi government. The real difference between the various plans is not the dates but the conditions: Both the Iraqis and Mr. McCain say the withdrawal would be linked to the ability of Iraqi forces to take over from U.S. troops, as they have begun to do. Mr. Obama's strategy allows no such linkage -- his logic is that a timetable unilaterally dictated from Washington is necessary to force Iraqis to take responsibility for the country.

At the time he first proposed his timetable, Mr. Obama argued -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that U.S. troops could not stop a sectarian civil war. He conceded that a withdrawal might be accompanied by a "spike" in violence. Now, he describes as "an achievable goal" that "we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future -- a government that prevents sectarian conflict and ensures that the al-Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge." How will that "true success" be achieved? By the same pullout that Mr. Obama proposed when chaos in Iraq appeared to him inevitable.

Mr. Obama reiterated yesterday that he would consult with U.S. commanders and the Iraqi government and "make tactical adjustments as we implement this strategy." However, as Mr. McCain quickly pointed out, he delivered his speech before traveling to Iraq -- before his meetings with Gen. David H. Petraeus and the Iraqi leadership. American commanders will probably tell Mr. Obama that from a logistical standpoint, a 16-month withdrawal timetable will be difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. Iraqis will say that a pullout that is not negotiated with the government and disregards the readiness of Iraqi troops will be a gift to al-Qaeda and other enemies. If Mr. Obama really intends to listen to such advisers, why would he lock in his position in advance?

"What's missing in our debate," Mr. Obama said yesterday, "is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq." Indeed: The message that the Democrat sends is that he is ultimately indifferent to the war's outcome -- that Iraq "distracts us from every threat we face" and thus must be speedily evacuated regardless of the consequences. That's an irrational and ahistorical way to view a country at the strategic center of the Middle East, with some of the world's largest oil reserves. Whether or not the war was a mistake, Iraq's future is a vital U.S. security interest. If he is elected president, Mr. Obama sooner or later will have to tailor his Iraq strategy to that reality.

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