As Obama lands in Afghanistan, Maliki endorses the Democrat’s Iraq plan

Barack Obama launched his foreign trip today, as Americans woke up on this Saturday morning to learn that Obama had landed in Afghanistan. Obama’s choice to travel to that country first is a way for the campaign to make its point that the war in Afghanistan has been overlooked and that it is time for the United States to refocus its national security priorities.

The Obama campaign was mindful of one of the potential downfalls of the coming week, namely that Obama’s high-profile travel makes him look arrogant and acting as if he has already won the presidential nomination. McCain’s spokesperson accused Obama of holding “campaign rally overseas” today. Obama sought to address that by telling reporters that “I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time.”

The second point of debate between the two campaigns concerns the fight over the pragmatism mantle. McCain has long sought to cast Obama as an ideologue who has his ideas set and will not reevaluate them based on what he sees on the ground. Just today, McCain said in a radio address: “Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy — remarkable.” Obama sought to also address that issue: “I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking,” he said, and the campaign is not planning any major speeches in Afghanistan and Iraq that might look like Obama is using these countries as a stage for his political ambition.

Democrats are hoping that images do the talking, as Obama’s trip is being covered with great attention in the US - much more, in any case, than McCain’s foreign trip received back in March. That discrepancy must be driving the GOP crazy, but Republicans have known for a while that they would not be able to match Obama’s profile in the media.

The Obama could not have expected that today, they would even benefit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki doing the talking. In what was a huge gift to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Maliki declared today in an interview to German magazine Der Spiegel:

U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes. … Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems.”

These statements are a bombshell thrown in the American political landscape. Maliki has endorsed a key element of Obama’s Iraq plan (a speedy timetable) and rejected the central tenet of McCain’s Iraq doctrine (a permanent South Korea-style military presence). And he has done so as explicitly as he can, with no room for the McCain campaign to argue that its proposals could be tolerated by the Iraqi government and forcing the American media to cover this for what it is: Iraq’s Prime Minister endorsing Barack Obama’s Iraq plan.

This will make it significantly easier for Obama to score points on Iraq in the coming months as he can now advocate for a timetable while invoking Maliki’s support. If the goal is to pacify Iraq, should that support not count for something? The Iraqi Prime Minister, after all, is not the enemy and the stakes of a pacified Iraq are as great for him as for American interests. If he is on record calling for American troops to leave Iraq and if he is not buying Bush’s argument that withdrawal would heighten chaos and civil war in Iraq, can McCain continue making that argument? And he can remain credible on issue of Iraq?

Of course, Maliki’s statement is dictated as much by strategic considerations than by political ones: Iraq’s public opinion and Maliki’s electorate do not want to hear about permanent bases and are in favor of American withdrawal, leaving Maliki no choice but to push for American withdrawal. But whatver Maliki’s motivations, it will be difficult for the McCain campaign to maneuver around it.

The campaign responded to Maliki’s comments today but made sure to avoid getting in a debate with the Prime Minister. Instead, McCain’s spokesperson insisted that the mere fact that Maliki is now talking of withdrawal is a testament to the success of the McCain-backed surge:

Let’s be clear, the only reason that the conversation about reducing troop levels in Iraq is happening is because John McCain challenged the failed Rumsfield-strategy in Iraq and argued for the surge strategy that is responsible for the successes we’ve achieved and which Barack Obama opposed.

Joe Klein points out that the success of the surge is a “tactical point” and is only useful to voters insofar as it informs the question of withdrawal. Even if voters become convinced that the surge is working, will they take that as a sign that troops should remain in Iraq or that it is time to bring them back home? Maliki weighing in on that debate has the potential to shift the Iraq debate and help Obama on what McCain regards as his own defining issue.

4 Responses to “As Obama lands in Afghanistan, Maliki endorses the Democrat’s Iraq plan”

  1. 1 zoot

    This is a very complex problem for both candidates. There’s a great deal of naivete in the American voting public. We insist on clear-cut and immutable policy positions in an enormously complex diplomatic environment when IMO the rational approach is to say: “These are my goals. They won’t change. How we’ll get there is subject to adjustment to the facts as they develop.” This almost theological insistence on undeviating commitment to strategy even after it’s proven unproductive is the legacy of the last 7+ years.

    However, the presidential campaign requires clear-cut positions; anything else leaves a candidate open to ‘waffling’. Right now, al-Maliki wants a commitment for US troops to leave. It’s not clear if this is tactical or based on principle, but either way, his views are more congruent with what seems to be Obama’s position than with McCain, who is joined at the hip with the Bush position.

    (Digression - who really knows what the administration position is week to week? They continue to emanate gaseous clouds of neo-con belligerence while migrating under cover towards a more rational policy, witness negotiating with Iran.) ,

    But Obama is a pragmatist. Much of the criticism of his shift to the center revolved around his comment that the actual pace of withdrawal will depend on the input he receives from commanders on the ground. What if Petraeus or his successor were to tell him that al-Qaeeda in Iraq was making major inroads against an Iraqi army that was incapable of dealing with it on its own? And how does al-Maliki’s position square with Obama’s view that there likely will be a residual force to address problems like this, and to seal the Iranian border? Will his noted pragmatism and willingness to adjust policy based on developing facts ensnare him in accusations that he’s pandering? He can’t afford to lock himself into an outright commitment in the face of a fluid and unclear future.

    To be fair minded about this, Obama was wrong on the surge. His original view I believe was that we shouldn’t even try it, because we’d get enmeshed in sectarian violence, and we’d be far worse off after 6-12 months of this than we were a year ago. Well, the surge seems to have worked to some extent at a tactical level, although it’s far from clear that there has been the political progress towards reconciliation that W predicted. Its also far from clear whether we’ve created a strong enough infrastructure to resist a re-emergence of violence once we withdraw. Even so, if you’re keeping score, Obama isn’t batting too much over .300 on these issues, probably a result of trying to hold the Dem Left in place during the primaries.

    McCain’s problems are equally daunting. He began by linking himself with the Bush surge policy, and relying on the face that it has at least temporarily suppressed violence, but insists that we have to be prepared for a long-term presence in Iraq, presumably at a substantial level. This may reflect as much a desire to create a new counter-balance to neighboring Iran (replacing Saddam Hussein) as a concern about continuing violence in Iraq; remember, Lieberman is his eminence grise.

    In any event, after having said he’d be responsive to Iraqi wishes, he’s now hearing that Iraq wants us out on an Obama timetable, not on his 100 year plan. He’s had to fall in behind Obama in saying we need to increase our presence in Afghanistan and deal with the Pakistani tribal areas, which Obama has been pushing as a priority for a while. I suspect that as time goes on, the consensus will be that Iraq was a digression, and that McCain’s belated enthusiasm for addressing Afghanistan tacitly endorses the Obama position. Karzai hasn’t helped him on this with his statement (however self-serving) that diplomatically validates Obama’s creds. His position on foreign policy may become even more tenuous if W in fact is prepared to initiate low-level face-to-face meetings with Iran, because Lieberman and the neocons will be livid over the perceived capitulation and will be pushing for a more aggressive platform plank.

    Obama is no pacifist, though McCain is trying to paint him as one. Obama’s view (straight out of Clausewitz) is that force is an extension of international politics by other means, but inherent in that logic is the premise that it must never be used as an end in itself, but used in tandem with diplomacy as a tool towards a greater geopolitical goal. We’ve had more than enough unfocused violence over the years since 2001 - it’s time to coordinate it with rational diplomatic maneuvers.

  2. 2 zoot

    An interesting analysis by Fareed Zakharia slotting Obama as a member of the realist foreign policy school at
    (no, I didn’t read it till after I wrote my first post!)

  3. 3 dannity

    “To be fair minded about this, Obama was wrong on the surge.”

    The “success” of the surge is more complex right now than what McCain is making it out to be. The “success” of the surge has also made the political situation in Iraq an extremely intriguing affair right now.

    First, the surge was designed to do one thing: to quell violence in Baghdad. This was supposed to have given Maliki political room to pull together his government and accomplish a set number of targeted goals. And violence is down in Iraq overall, which is a good thing. The problem is, a large reason that violence is down in addition to additional troops is our having made the decision to pay off Iraqi militia and “death squads” to keep them from attacking us and other targets we deem important. While this tactic has lowered violence, we’ll have to wait to see if this was a wise investment long-term, or if we just lined the pockets of militias who have no interest in working with the Iraqi government after we leave. Either way, we can’t babysit the government forever to find out.

    Also, despite being a tactical military success, the surge hasn’t payed off politically. At least, not the way we had hoped it would. The majority of the Iraqi government’s checkpoints remain incomplete, or completed below standard. Meanwhile, large swaths of Maliki’s government, including Shiite and Kurd coalitions, have either walked away or been driven out. Despite this, Maliki likely considers himself in a stronger political position than he did a year back, which is probably one of the reasons that he’s started floating timelines to Western press. This goes against Bush’s wishes, but just highlights that the Iraqi Prime Minister is acting more and more in his own interests.

    Iraq is very complicated. To argue that “the surge worked” ignores a hell of a lot of other factors currently going on in the area. I won’t even touch what factor Iranian influence is having in this. What the surge likely did was make Maliki’s political position a bit safer, and since Bush has tied his Iraqi ship to Maliki, I guess he’s getting what he wanted. However, there’s a lot more to this story left to be written. The question that we need to ask ourself is, is it in our best interests to continue to try to fight this out militarily. Anyone who knows anyone who’s been deployed over the past 18 months knows that we can’t keep up the “surge” for very much longer. Is this a winnable battle?

    The only thing we know for sure right now is that there is not going to be a new agreement with Iraq allowing our forces to stay in country long-term, so the only way we stay there is to topple another Iraqi government. John McCain might think that we can take a mulligan on the Iraq war, and do it right this time, but that’s not the way things work. If Maliki says leave, either we officially become occupiers and all that entails, or leave and figure out our best way forward.

    Sorry for the long post, but this “surge” business needs some clearing up.

  4. 4 zoot

    Dannity - I think we agree that the success of the surge is at the tactical level. The larger point is that Obama didn’t even want to try it, thinking we’d be bloodied in factional fighting. (So did I.) That didn’t happen, although as you point out, why it didn’t, and even whether that’s a good or a bad thing, remains very unclear.

    He’s my candidate, but nobody bats 1.000 in that league. The test of any candidate is if s/he’s prepared to acknowledge and rectify the mistake.

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