What Did Obama Learn in Iraq?
The senator hasn't shown us much yet.
The surge that Obama opposed had two parts to it: an increase in troops and a bet on a new military strategy. Obama opposed the additional troops; he also opposed a host of other new tactics Gen. Petraeus tried, arguing they would not lead to political improvement. Even if you agree with the argument that the additional brigades didn't change much in Iraq on their own, you still have to account for whether the overall Petraeus strategy shift worked to assist the positive developments among Sunnis and Sadr's Shiite militia. Obama suggests the military had almost no role in the Anbar Awakening and the decision by Sadr's militia to stand down—that the two sets of events merely happened "at the same time." Military leaders think they had a role in bringing about these improvements. (This might be a bigger dis of the brass than his conflict with them over a timeline for withdrawal.) What did he learn on his trip that suggests he's right and the generals are wrong? Did nothing on the trip shade his view?
These questions are linked to the big looming problem in Iraq—the slow pace of political reform—and how U.S. policy fixes that problem. Obama maintains that whatever gains the new strategy has produced on the political front, they haven't been enough. Only by setting his timetable for withdrawal will Iraqis shape up and make hard choices. This has always been at the heart of his policy, and when asked about the success of the surge, Obama doubled down on the idea that only withdrawal could get the Iraqis moving. Terry Moran of ABC asked if he would vote for the surge knowing what he knows now. He said he would not. He suggested withdrawal might have yielded the same or better results as the Petraeus strategy. Did he get any new evidence on his trip to support this theory?
Obama once argued that the Anbar Awakening of September 20006, in which Sunni tribesmen turned against al-Qaida, started because Democrats took control of Congress. (The awakening started months before the 2006 election, but never mind, McCain also mangled the timeline this week.) Obama's theory was that since Democrats had promised to withdraw troops, Sunnis started taking their affairs into their own hands. But given that Congress never made good on its promise to reduce funding or troop levels, and in fact troop levels increased, why didn't Sunni violence go up? What did Obama learn on his trip that's relevant here?
Will Obama expand on his thinking about these Iraq specifics in the coming days? Politically, it would probably be a bad idea for him to do so. Obama looks like he's on the right side of the moment. The Iraqi prime minister has validated his plan for a 16-month withdrawal timeline, and the Bush administration is talking in a similar way. For months, Obama has called for engagement with Iran and now that's what the administration is doing. So, too, on Afghanistan, which he's been focusing on for months. Though he deftly used his Democratic opponents' past votes during the primaries to argue he had better judgment, he'll now seek to take advantage of voters' preference for thinking about the future. "Let's not re-fight the past," said former Sen. Bob Kerrey in an Obama campaign statement criticizing McCain for his obsession over Obama's position on the surge.
Perhaps Obama doesn't want to share his views because his inquisitive mind sometimes takes him to contradictory places. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes about pulling aside reporters who were living in Iraq to get their views about the war. He expected them to agree with his call for a troop reduction. They didn't. They said a troop reduction would start a civil war. Obama called for a troop reduction anyway, but we know his mind is alive enough to capture and remember a piece of data that didn't fit with his pre-existing views. Are contradictory observations fine for a book but off-limits when you're a political candidate? Admitting you're wrong, or even that your thinking has evolved, is risky for a politician. Maybe too risky. That's certainly what George Bush believes.