It was supposed to be a presidential election about the war in Iraq, with the war’s most stalwart defender in the Senate squaring off against an early and vigorous dissenter. But a global economic disaster has a way of refocusing the public debate.
At bottom, Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, argues for staying in Iraq and Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, argues for leaving. Still, the varying ways that McCain and Obama have discussed Iraq have taken some curious turns.
A senior McCain adviser, Steve Schmidt, famously charged that “You never heard the word ‘victory’ from Sen. Obama” — which is half true. Obama doesn’t use the word “victory” to describe Iraq — but then, neither does Gen. David Petraeus, whom McCain has apotheosized.
However, Obama does talk about “long-term success in Iraq,” and what he means by it is something that both McCain and the Bush administration firmly reject: withdrawal.
By contrast, McCain has never defined what he means by “victory” in Iraq, a blindspot that some observers think is a vestige of his Vietnam experience. He has applauded Petraeus’ strategy of using a U.S. troop increase to protect the population, but does not discuss what he would do in Iraq now that the so-called troop surge is over.
“I find his rhetoric [to center around] an undefined term called victory, honor, success,” said Rand Beers, a counterterrorism aide to Democratic and Republican presidents, who resigned from the Bush White House in 2003 as a protest against the Iraq war, “and believing that those value-laden words are enough to convey this positive, winning solution in contrast to ‘retreat’ and ‘defeat,’ or various other metaphors for Democrats in general, or Obama in particular.”
Over the last few months, Obama has portrayed withdrawal from Iraq as the true measure of success. In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki endorsed the contours of the Democratic nominee’s proposed withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by mid-2010. After the Iraqi premier gave an imprimatur to the plan — Maliki later said he accepted a 2011 withdrawal target only after President George W. Bush insisted on that date to aid McCain — Obama wrote a New York Times op-ed urging withdrawal to secure “long-term success” in Iraq.
“Only by redeploying our troops,” Obama wrote on July 14, “can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis’ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country.” He further contended that keeping U.S. forces in Iraq would entail “hold[ing] our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.”
In doing so, Obama has recast the terms of the debate set by Bush over the past five years. Since the war began, the president treated withdrawal as the opposite of success in Iraq. Even after the Iraqi prime minister endorsed setting a date for a U.S. departure, a Bush radio address in August denounced “impos[ing] artificial timelines for withdrawal.” He said this a month after accepting “time horizons” for a pullout — a dramatic reversal of policy that his administration, at least in public, does not acknowledge was a departure.
McCain has followed suit. When he has discussed withdrawal he has used terms like “reckless,” “chaos” and even “genocide.” In a speech delivered in March, McCain said that withdrawal before a “victory” that he never defined would be an “unconscionable act of betrayal [and] a stain on our character as a great nation.”
The closest he has come to explaining his strategy in Iraq has been to ask the American public to imagine the end of a successful first McCain term. “By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom,” McCain said in a May speech. Even in McCain’s vision of a world where the “Iraq war has been won,” the U.S. keeps troops in Iraq, but in “much smaller” numbers and not for “a direct combat role.”
For some, McCain’s vagueness on Iraq begins to call into question his repeated statement that he “knows how to win wars.”
“It goes back to how you define victory” in general, said Robert Mackey, a recently retired Army officer. “McCain’s is the one he grew up with, as the son and grandson of admirals — the Armistice of 1918, Tokyo Bay. It was total [surrender], there was nothing minor about it.” Withdrawal from Vietnam “felt like a ripoff to him,” Mackey believes, and it colors McCain’s view of the Iraq war.
Victory, if so, comes when “the bad guys are not there anymore,” Mackey continued — a situation that does not apply to a counterinsurgency fight, as even former Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged years ago. “For McCain, that his generation’s sense [of victory],” Mackey said. “But the truth is that’s an aberration of history.”
Others view McCain as retaining a vision of victory that matches the most grandiose pronouncements of the Bush administration.
“During the congressional hearings in April, McCain outlined a grandiose vision of a stable, prosperous, democratic Iraq that serves as ‘a pillar of our future strategy for the entire region of the Greater Middle East,’” said Shawn Brimley, a fellow at the Center for A New American Security, in an email. “It is a fantastic vision that McCain believes will result in an Iraq that is a ’strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran.’
“It is clear to me,” Brimley continued, “that McCain and his advisors continue to embrace the essence of the neoconservative dream, and, if given the opportunity, will continue to keep American troops in Iraq for as long as it takes. It is a vision of success that is entirely inconsistent with the strategy Petraeus and Crocker outlined during their tenure (sustainable security), and it is a vision that is wholly disconnected from the strategic imperative to carefully and gradually rebalance in favor of supporting our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the central front in the war on terror.”
For Obama, redefining success in terms of withdrawal carries its own challenges should he win the election. His advisers clearly intend for that framework to help him retain the trust of the military while engaging in the psychologically grueling process of withdrawal.
While the Bush administration may have eroded the comfort that much of the officer corps has with the Republican Party, lingering suspicion of the Democrats ensures that Obama will face many early tests of tone and comfort level coming from the Pentagon. Those early tests created an acrimonious relationship with the Clinton administration beginning even before Bill Clinton was inaugurated.
“Clinton had to deal with — not to put too fine a point on it — being a draft dodger,” remembered Beers, adding that Clinton’s seeming comfort with gays openly serving in uniform — a repudiated position — and unclear, nonconventional military missions contributed to an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. But Beers noted that that five years of the Iraq war has created a uniformed constituency for withdrawal.
“The Iraqi security forces are never going to be in any reasonable time frame an equivalent to the U.S. military, so at some point you have to be prepared to let go,” Beers said. “If you don’t let them do that, it’s very hard to leave and the military doesn’t want to be in Iraq forever. so because it doesn’t want be in Iraq forever, this is a strategy for reconciling that with not wanting to leave in total chaos.”
Brandon Friedman, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, largely agreed. “I think the majority of those working at the Pentagon would see this as the honorable way out,” Friedman, now the vice-chairman of the veterans’ advocacy group VoteVets, said in an email. “Right now, no one high up wants to talk about withdrawing, because that’s not the mission. And when you start to talk about withdrawing before you’re given that mission, that’s when the conversation often gets uncomfortably awkward in military circles.”
Friedman elaborated, “So I think Obama is using the correct frame here: ‘You’ve done your job. You met the standard and you completed the mission. The rest is on the State Department, USAID, the Iraqi government, etc. Now take a break and let’s get ready to go get Osama bin Laden.’”
The two most important generals from the perspective of Obama’s withdrawal-as-success frame are Petraeus, now commander of U.S. Central Command, which directs U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, and Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. They will be the officers in charge of implementing withdrawal strategy should Obama win. Neither man appears comfortable with the idea of a rapid withdrawal, though it is unclear how they define “rapid.”
Bob Woodward reports in his new book “The War Within” that ret. Army Gen. Jack Keane, a key figure in designing the troop surge and a mentor to Petraeus, sold the Bush administration on appointing Petraeus and Odierno to their current billets precisely to create a political impediment to withdrawal. “Let’s assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly,” Keane told Defense Sec. Bob Gates in April, according to Woodward, “and now they have to deal with Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them.”
How a President Obama handles his relationships with Petraeus and Odierno will likely be pivotal for withdrawing from Iraq. There are some early signs of comfort: a July meeting in Baghdad went well by all accounts. At the Heritage Foundation last week, Petraeus declined to subtly criticize Obama or subtly bolster McCain. And Petraeus has announced a strategy review for the entire region, with an apparent emphasis on the Afghanistan war, which Obama calls the central front against Al Qaeda.
The Center for a New American Security’s Brimley said that Obama’s withdrawal-based vision for Iraq is more consistent with the “current military framework” of the shift from combat to overwatching Iraqi security forces than McCain’s is. “The very campaign plan that the military uses every day in Iraq is a plan that sees our forces shifting from leading, to partnering, to overwatch and eventual exit,” Brimley said, referring to a campaign plan that was designed by Petraeus and Odierno.
“Most military officers and enlisted members I know understand the imperative of eventually leaving Iraq,” he added.
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