What Did Obama Learn in Iraq?
The senator hasn't shown us much yet.
Barack Obama's trip to Iraq was so presidential that at moments, he sounded like our current White House resident. When Karen Tumulty of Time asked Obama what he'd learned on his trip, he said, "It confirmed a lot of my beliefs." Lara Logan of CBS asked him if he was ever in doubt that he could lead the country in war as commander in chief, and he answered, "Never."
After seven and a half years of George Bush, we should pause when a man auditioning for president says that the facts confirmed his beliefs and that he's never in doubt. As Obama himself has warned us at other moments, these are signs that a fearless leader may be letting ideology or rigidity steer him in the wrong direction. We know, from his books, if nothing else, that Barack Obama, in fact, goes through life thinking in subtle, nuanced, and interesting ways. He's probably got lots of complex input from his visit to Iraq that he's dissecting and analyzing. But he's not sharing much. And what he has shared on the occasion of his big trip hasn't been very nourishing.
Before Obama flew to Baghdad, I asked his top foreign-policy adviser, Susan Rice, what kinds of questions he'd asked of his advisers over the months to test whether his Iraq withdrawal plan still matched the realities on the ground in Iraq. Rice gave me no examples. And now that the trip is over, we have no better sense of how Sen. Obama thinks about Iraq. It's not that I expect grand revelations. But Obama still holds the same policy views he did more than a year and a half ago, even though a lot has changed since then in Iraq, and a lot of those events appear to contradict his earlier views. We know that Obama hasn't moved, but we don't know, really, why that's so.
The main complexity Obama has to confront in Iraq is the apparent success of the most recent phase of U.S. military strategy, of which the troop surge was a key part. Violence has come down from stratospheric heights. The success is relative (violence is still at 2005 levels), but the situation is far better than Obama predicted. When he voted against the surge in January 2007, he claimed on more than one occasion that it would lead to increased casualties and sectarian violence. It didn't. How'd he get that one wrong? In January 2007, Obama claimed that the Iraqi government would make no hard choices if the United States stayed. But they have made hard choices. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched incursions into Basra and confronted cleric Muqtada Sadr, both of which helped pave the way for the Sunni faction's return to the government. This is not enough progress to suggest Iraq is anywhere near stable, but like the drop in violence, it's more than Obama predicted.
These are not academic questions. Some people would say the vote on the surge was one of Obama's most important as a senator. As Obama pointed out regularly during the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war, a person's past vote tells you something about his or her judgment. Obama has talked a lot about the clarity of his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. He also once suggested that if he'd been forced to cast an actual vote for or against the Iraq war as a senator, his view might have been complicated. On the surge, we get a chance to watch Obama grapple with similar complexities in real time. Or, at least, we should.
Obama's take on the surge also tells us how he processes information about Iraq. This has direct bearing on how he shapes his policy for the country today. The same choices are in play—will military tactics or withdrawal get the Iraqis to make political progress? If Obama was wrong about the tactical gains that would be made by the new strategy and wrong about how the Iraqi political leaders would react, can his larger theory about how Iraqis will respond to a troop pullout remain intact? Perhaps, but he has the burden of explanation. Does he elide contradictions, claim they're irrelevant, and generally spin? In his interview with NBC's Brian Williams, he suggested that he'd always said the surge would decrease violence in Iraq. That's not just spin. It's not true. At the time Bush announced the surge, Obama said: "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse."