Mr. Obama in Iraq

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

THE INITIAL MEDIA coverage of Barack Obama's visit to Iraq suggested that the Democratic candidate found agreement with his plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces on a 16-month timetable. So it seems worthwhile to point out that, by Mr. Obama's own account, neither U.S. commanders nor Iraq's principal political leaders actually support his strategy.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the dramatic turnaround in U.S. fortunes, "does not want a timetable," Mr. Obama reported with welcome candor during a news conference yesterday. In an interview with ABC, he explained that "there are deep concerns about . . . a timetable that doesn't take into account what [American commanders] anticipate might be some sort of change in conditions."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has a history of tailoring his public statements for political purposes, made headlines by saying he would support a withdrawal of American forces by 2010. But an Iraqi government statement made clear that Mr. Maliki's timetable would extend at least seven months beyond Mr. Obama's. More significant, it would be "a timetable which Iraqis set" -- not the Washington-imposed schedule that Mr. Obama has in mind. It would also be conditioned on the readiness of Iraqi forces, the same linkage that Gen. Petraeus seeks. As Mr. Obama put it, Mr. Maliki "wants some flexibility in terms of how that's carried out."

Other Iraqi leaders were more directly critical. As Mr. Obama acknowledged, Sunni leaders in Anbar province told him that American troops are essential to maintaining the peace among Iraq's rival sects and said they were worried about a rapid drawdown.

Mr. Obama's response is that, as president, he would have to weigh Iraq's needs against those of Afghanistan and the U.S. economy. He says that because Iraq is "a distraction" from more important problems, U.S. resources devoted to it must be curtailed. Yet he also says his aim is to "succeed in leaving Iraq to a sovereign government that can take responsibility for its own future." What if Gen. Petraeus and Iraqi leaders are right that this goal is not consistent with a 16-month timetable? Will Iraq be written off because Mr. Obama does not consider it important enough -- or will the strategy be altered?

Arguably, Mr. Obama has given himself the flexibility to adopt either course. Yesterday he denied being "so rigid and stubborn that I ignore anything that happens during the course of the 16 months," though this would be more reassuring if Mr. Obama were not rigidly and stubbornly maintaining his opposition to the successful "surge" of the past 16 months. He also pointed out that he had "deliberately avoided providing a particular number" for the residual force of Americans he says would be left behind.

Yet Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama's antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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