Obama In Iraq's Quicksand

Published July 29, 2008

Commentary Web Exclusive

To listen to Barack Obama attempt to explain his views on Iraq and the so-called surge is becoming, for those of us who have followed his responses over the last 18 months, something of a spectacle. With every effort, it seems, he is compounding his mistakes in judgment with intellectually dishonest answers, ones which melt away under even minimal scrutiny.

The latest example is Obama's appearance yesterday on Meet the Press. During the interview, host Tom Brokaw played portions of an interview with Obama on January 10, 2007 – the day President Bush's so-called surge strategy was announced – when Obama said this:

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there; in fact, I think it'll do the reverse.

When asked by Brokaw about this quote and whether the surge has made it possible to withdraw American troops within 16 months, Obama answered:

I mean, I know that there's that little snippet that you ran, but there were also statements made during the course of this debate in which I said there's no doubt that additional U.S. troops could temporarily quell the violence.

The problem with this response is several-fold. First, Brokaw could have played many additional “snippets,” all of which were of Obama opposing the surge and indicating that it would fail. For example, in responding to President Bush’s January 23 State of the Union address, Obama said this:

I don't think the president's strategy is going to work. We went through two weeks of hearings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; experts from across the spectrum–military and civilian, conservative and liberal–expressed great skepticism about it. My suggestion to the president has been that the only way we're going to change the dynamic in Iraq and start seeing political commendation is actually if we create a system of phased redeployment.

In July 2007, long after the surge was announced, Obama claimed, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked.” And in November 2007, two months after General David Petraeus testified before Congress about the considerable progress we had made because of the surge, Obama argued it was making the situation in Iraq potentially worse:

Finally, in 2006-2007, we started to see that, even after an election, George Bush continued to want to pursue a course that didn't withdraw troops from Iraq but actually doubled them and initiated a surge and at that stage I said very clearly, not only have we not seen improvements, but we're actually worsening, potentially, a situation there.

So Obama’s anti-surge “snippet” was in fact an accurate representation of what he said and believed at the time, and for a long while after that.

As for Obama's statement that “during the course of this debate” he has maintained that “there's no doubt that additional U.S. troops could temporarily quell the violence:” What Obama doesn't say is that he made that claim in a debate in 2008, a year after the surge was announced and well after it was clearly succeeding.

In fact, Obama made his “quelling the violence” statement in an attempt to deny his initial prediction that the surge would cause sectarian violence to worsen. What Obama did in yesterday’s Meet the Press interview, then, is to provide a misleading answer to a previously dishonest answer, in an effort to cover up his spectacularly wrong prediction.

Later in his Meet the Press interview, Obama attempts to offer examples of developments that have decreased violence that are separate and apart from the surge. According to Obama:

for example, in Anbar Province, where we went to visit, the Sunni awakening took place before the surge started, and tribal leaders made a decision that, instead of fighting the Americans, we're going to work with the Americans against al-Qaeda.

It's true that the Anbar Awakening, which Obama recognized only long after the fact, did precede the surge. What Obama didn't say, what the sheiks of Anbar will tell you, is that the surge helped them enormously in their efforts. There was an organic uprising against al Qaeda in Anbar based on al Qaeda's savagery, and we were wise enough to assist those efforts. But Obama will not tell that story, because it would credit a policy he fiercely opposed.

Still later in the Meet the Press interview, Obama states

John McCain's essential focus has been on the tactical issue of sending more troops

This demonstrates Obama's confusion about the scope and nature of the surge. It was not a tactical adjustment; in fact, it was a profound, and much needed, change in strategy.

What Obama doesn't seem to grasp is that what made the surge successful is not merely, or even primarily, an increase in the number of troops; it was a fundamentally new counterinsurgency strategy, one that concentrated on securing the population and, over time, winning their confidence and support.

In the past, American combat troops would secure an area but quickly withdraw, turning it over to the Iraqi Security Forces, which at that time were unprepared to defend the gains we had made. People likened it at the time to a car tire, in the midst of a rain storm, hitting a pothole filled with water; it temporarily expels the water, but once the tire vacates the pothole, it immediately fills up again.

General Petraeus, along with others, dramatically altered our approach, and we have been benefiting from the fruits of those changes ever since.

It would be useful if the man who hopes to be our next commander-in-chief understood the difference between a tactical adjustment and a strategic shift. To argue that the entire course of the Iraq war changed because of an alteration on a “tactical issue” is ridiculous.

There is still more. When Brokaw, citing a recent USA Today editorial, asked Obama why he cannot bring himself to acknowledge the surge worked better than he and other skeptics thought it would and then asked, “What does that stubbornness say about the kind of president that he would be?”, Obama replied

Well, listen. I, I actually think that there's no doubt that the violence has gone down more than any of us anticipated, including President Bush and John McCain. If you, if you would–if you had talked to them and, and said, “You know what? We're going to bring down violence to the levels that we have,” I think–I, I, I suspect USA Today's own editorial board wouldn't have anticipated that. That's not a, that's not a hard thing to acknowledge, that the situations have improved more rapidly than we had anticipated. That doesn't change the broader strategic questions that we've got to deal with.

It's true that the surge worked sooner than anyone, including Bush and McCain, thought it would. The key difference with Obama, of course, is that both Bush and McCain believed the surge would succeed, whereas Obama believed it would not only fail, but make things worse.

As for Obama's statement that it's “not a hard thing to acknowledge” that violence has gone down more than anyone anticipated: Why,
then, is it so hard for Obama to acknowledge that his opposition to the surge was wrong? Why does he insist, as recently as a week ago, that his opposition to the surge was right and wise? Obama's position was obviously, and at this stage we can say indisputably, mistaken. Yet Obama cannot bring himself to admit what he must, on some level, know to be true.

There are at least three conclusions to draw from Obama's appearance on Meet the Press. The first is that when it comes to his stand on Iraq, Obama is like a man trapped in quicksand. The more he fights to justify his past stances, the quicker and deeper he sinks. Obama's explanations have moved from being misleading to unserious to embarrassing.

The second, and related, conclusion we can reach is that the more Obama talks about the surge, the more his claim that he has the “judgment to lead” is subverted. He has taken an understandable and forgivable mistake in judgment (opposition to the surge) and allowed it to call into question his political character and, by denying the positive effects of the surge for so long, his attachment to reality.

In addition, Obama’s comments about the Iraq war being a “distraction,” when combined with his votes against funding American troops on the battlefield and his 2007 proposal to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by early 2008, call into question whether Obama was ever serious about winning the war or was bothered in the least by losing it.

The third conclusion is that Obama has completely obliterated the core early promise of his candidacy: that he would turn the page on American politics and offer us something new and better; that he would speak honestly and candidly, in a way free of ideology and in a manner than demonstrated an open mind, and eschew “spin.”

Obama has not only turned out to be a practitioner of the “old politics”; he has, as a young, first-term senator, come to embody it. He has fallen into seemingly every trap he said he would avoid. All the hype, all the promise, all the high-minded words have turned out to be a mirage. And for those of us who were once impressed with Obama, even as we strongly disagreed with his political ideology, it has been both a fascinating and unsettling thing to witness. Watching a man become what he preaches against often is.

— Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives. His “Obama's War” appeared in our April issue.


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