Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 March 2008

Iraq and Our Elections


Frank Rich is back in form again. His column today sees right through the transparently erroneous jabs that John McCain and Hillary Clinton—in nearly identical terms—are aiming at Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The column is must reading for everyone interested in our current electoral campaign or the future of our enterprises in Iraq and Pakistan.

But Rich’s column has a limitation. As appears to be his wont, he focuses almost exclusively on politics here at home. On that subject he is entirely accurate, but he doesn’t venture beyond domestic politics to issues of foreign policy. I’d like to do that in this post.

We have spent five years in Iraq. That’s more time than we spent in World War II, the Korean War, or Gulf I. So far, our effort has cost nearly four thousand American lives, uncounted Iraqi lives (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) and close to a trillion dollars. The war has not made us safer. On the contrary, it has created a new terrorist threat (Al Qaeda in Iraq) that did not exist before our invasion. It also distracted our attention from the most serious foreign threat against us: the struggle with Al Qaeda Central, now in Pakistan.

These facts are universally acknowledged. Even McCain admits them, at least in his less partisan moments. Dubya’s decision to invade Iraq was a gigantic blunder. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “Iraq will go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy.”

As Rich implied and I have argued over and over, that conclusion ought to inform our electoral choices. Among Clinton, McCain and Obama, only Obama was right before the fact. Only he made the correct judgment call five months before the invasion.

Not only did Obama make the right call: he also cited the right reasons for doing so. The two key sentences from his October 2, 2002, speech are worth repeating, on the off chance that someone out there has not yet read them:
    “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
How right can one man be?

But McCain is also right today on an important point. Past mistakes do not excuse future blunders.

War is not a poker hand, which you can fold with impunity if the luck of the draw does not improve your cards. Like it or not, our gigantic blunder in Iraq has changed the future of that country—and the entire Middle East—for all time. The nature of that change is still at hazard. No one who cares about our future, Iraq’s future, Israel, the Middle East, or world peace and progress can be indifferent to the outcome.

Another thing is also clear. Whatever happens in our elections, most or all of our combat troops will be out of Iraq in less than four years. Neither our people nor the neighbors will tolerate a longer occupation; and we desperately need those troops elsewhere, more to the northeast. Even John McCain cannot resist the tides of domestic politics, military necessity, and history. His “100 years” jibe was just an old warrior’s bluster. We can excuse him for it because he is a war hero; Dubya is not.

Everyone acknowledges that getting our troops out of Iraq safely will take at least a year. This is so even if the only goal is getting them out safely and as quickly as possible. No serious withdrawal is like to begin before Dubya and Cheney leave office. So counting from today, our “leeway” for policy lies somewhere between two years of continued occupation, at a minimum, and three or four three years at most. Every thinking person here at home, in Iraq, among the Sunni sheikhs, and in Al Qaeda understands that.

So the question is not “will we get out?” We will. Nor is it when we’ll get out. We’ll leave as it becomes safe and prudent to do so, most likely within four years.

The question is how we’ll get out and what we’ll leave behind. Will we leave a stable society that is better off than under Saddam, with prospects for social, economic and political progress? Or will we leave a manifestly failed state, open to incursion, invasion or partial annexation by neighbors and a potential breeding ground for terrorism?

Obama understands what is at stake just as well as McCain. Unnoticed in the Texas debate was his admission that events on the ground in Iraq have improved recently. “I think it is indisputable,” he said, “that we’ve seen violence reduced in Iraq.” His realism and honesty as a candidate are reasons why he attracts so many independents, Republicans, and non-ideological voters.

Obama has said repeatedly that we must be “as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” Part of care in getting out is not leaving chaos behind, if only because the dogs of war might nip our troops’ heels as they depart.

The crux of the matter, then, is who would have a better chance of leaving behind a stable society and a modicum of success in Iraq, in exchange for our half decade of painful sacrifice there? Three factors point strongly to Obama.

First and foremost, Obama understands viscerally that all politics is local. He has built his own campaign here at home on a grass-roots movement, and he has done a magnificent job. In a way that neither Clinton nor McCain can hope to match, he knows that the postponed provincial elections in Iraq are the political key to a stable society. Whether by diplomacy, pressure or the threat of military force, he as president will make sure those elections happen, and as soon as possible.

Second, Obama has personal experience with hate. He knows in his bones that the enmity among Shiites, Kurds and Sunni is not going to disappear overnight. He therefore understands that some sort of partitioning is essential for Iraq to become a stable society. He will not cling to the pipe dream of a unified, fully reconciled Iraq, as Dubya and McCain do. He will not continue to believe that Sunni sheiks will risk their lives fighting under Shiite commanders who may have led death squads against them. Here, too, Obama is a realist.

Finally, Obama is the most cautious, careful and prudent of the three candidates in general. On every issue of national importance, he has been more prudent than Hillary. She takes fliers on price controls that even the Soviet Union abandoned, while Obama sticks to solutions known to work. And Obama has never indulged himself in foolish bluster like Dubya’s “bring ‘em on!” or McCain’s “100 years” gaffe. Wouldn’t it be nice to put a prudent and careful statesman with some self restraint—and a realist—in the White House for a change?

Frank Rich is right. The Iraqi president’s veto, which postponed the provincial elections that the Iraqi Parliament had scheduled for October, was a distinct setback. But the answer to that setback is not to fold our hand. No realist or careful leader takes a political setback as an excuse to compound a gigantic blunder with further blunders.

Obama understands all this, deep in his bones. McCain still thinks that, if our brave troops and rebellious taxpayers only sacrifice more, we can turn Iraq into Switzerland. Hillary seems to understand nothing about Iraq except its effect on her chances to become president. If you want to trade blunders for intelligent policy in Iraq, you have only one rational choice.

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