Thursday, December 04, 2008

Defining Obama's Iraq War policy through pundit imagination

Those zany conservatives come up with some creative arguments (kinda-sorta)

The San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders is using a conservative meme that seems to be popular, by which they seem to think they're tweaking frustrated liberals (Obama's picks - so far, so good 12/03/08). Like a lot of conservative favorites, trying to follow these arguments came give you whiplash because of their double-reverse path. In this case, opposing Obama's Iraq policy comes out as supporting his Iraq policy while setting up to criticize him for implementing his Iraq policy:

Obama's decision to keep on Defense Secretary Robert Gates has angered the anti-war left, as it signals that Obama is prepared to drop his pledge to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. I'm thrilled. Gates would not agree to stay if he expected a precipitous troop withdrawal.

Thus, the big question about Obama has been answered: While Democrats - even Clinton and Biden, who both voted to authorize the war - may play the blame game with Bush about Iraq, Obama understands that if Iraq collapses after U.S. troops are withdrawn, then it won't matter who started the war. America loses, and he loses.

Now the question is: When did Obama know he would not honor his hard timeline pledge - during the primary, as I suspect, or over time, as the Bush-Gates troop surge brought about increased security in Iraq? Either way, Obama is where he should be on the issue.
I guess Saunders just missed this short Reuters report from two days before:

President-elect Barack Obama said on Monday he believed U.S. combat troops should leave Iraq within 16 months of his taking office but he would listen to advice from military commanders.

"I believe that 16 months is the right timeframe but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders," Obama said after unveiling his nominees for top national security posts.

Obama said a new security pact between Iraq and the United States already put the United States on a "glide path" to pulling out of Iraq. He also noted that a "residual" U.S. force may need to remain in Iraq longer than combat troops. (Andrew Gray, U.S. troops may be out of Iraq in 16 months: Obama 12/03/08)
Just making stuff up makes things a lot easier. Why is Saunders so confident that Obama has changed the plan that he explicitly reaffirmed on Monday? Confident to the point of taking it as a given fact: "Now the question is: When did Obama know he would not honor his hard timeline pledge".

This is a good example of where a superficially cynical "left" position can wind up just echoing rightwingers. Active war opponents have been saying all along that whoever is elected President, the antiwar movement needed to bring pressure on him/her to get a full and timely withdrawal. That's still true.

It's also still true that Obama is reaffirming his 16-month timeline. Tom Hayden, who has quite a bit of experience opposing wars, writes about the promise and the risk of Obama's withdrawal plan in Iraq Pact Challenges Antiwar Movement The Nation 12/01/08. His is a critical perspective, focusing on the promising and problematic aspects of Obama's Iraq War policy as we know it now:

There will be continued attention to implementing the [withdrawal] pact [with Iraq] and pressuring for human rights standards in Baghdad, but the steady return of thousands of American soldiers will send a powerful message to most Americans that the Iraq War is ending, perhaps not soon enough, but ending nonetheless.

But it is possible to imagine broad and intense public support for a movement questioning Obama's multiple wars--Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict--as unwinnable quagmires that alienate countless Muslims and cost over $200 billion annually that taxpayers cannot afford amidst a collapsing economy.
But he's looking at withdrawals that he expects Obama to implement. During the campaign, Obama talked about removing all combat troops in 16 months. But leaving residual forces for training and emergency duty against "Al Qa'ida". Leaving even a residual force there is highly problematic.

And Hayden makes an interesting claim:

The agreement forces the Bush administration and Pentagon to back down from long-held positions, especially over deadlines. The barracking of American troops in remote areas by June 2009 will be a retreat from offensive operations. More important, the language of the agreement in Arabic stipulates that all American forces, not merely combat units, will be withdrawn by 2001.

If these terms are maintained, President-elect Obama will be acquiescing in a doubling of his sixteen-month deadline for withdrawal of combat troops, but also for the first time accepting a date for removal of the so-called residual American forces--since "all" means all counter-terrorism units, advisers, trainers and back-up forces that could total 50,000 or more.

Because shrugging off treaty obligations is a custom of state, only informed publics and alert parliamentarians in Washington and Baghdad can ensure that these agreements are implemented. [my emphasis]
How does this match up with Saunder's claim, "I'm thrilled. Gates would not agree to stay if he expected a precipitous troop withdrawal"?

Since "precipitous" can be used as a weasel-word, it's not really clear how much it differs. But if Hayden's information is correct, the Cheney-Bush administration Gates now serves has agreed to a full withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011. And Obama says he intends to implement the 16-month timeline.

I worry myself that Gates may try to oppose Obama's withdrawal plans in some way. But that's a worry, not an assumption. I don't see that Saunders has any actual reason to conclude that keeping Gates means that Obama has abandoned his election promise. If anything, combined with the wording of the status-of-forces agreement, there's reason to think he is likely to try to stick to the timeline and get all the troops out, not just the "combat troops".

There continue to be some thoughtful criticisms of Obama's choice of Bob Gates to continue for now at Defense, such as Robert Perry's Obama's Fateful Choice of Gates 12/01/08. Perry is one who thinks Gates was a poor choice, as I do, too. But in that column he carefully explains his reasons based on Gates' record. And he notes, "During the presidential campaign, Gates continued to carry water for President Bush and his favored successor John McCain by arguing against Obama’s plan for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq."

That's a factual statement. But when Saunders says, "Gates would not agree to stay if he expected a precipitous troop withdrawal", it's not clear that represents anything but her own arbitrary assumption.

The real point of her position is this: "Obama understands that if Iraq collapses after U.S. troops are withdrawn, then it won't matter who started the war. America loses, and he loses."

She's positioning herself to make a stab-in-the-back argument that the Republicans will make no matter how smoothly things go in Iraq during withdrawal and after - and it's likely that there will be a lot of internal violence. In this column, she's trying to work around the fact that the Defense Secretary who implemented The Surge is staying on and accepting responsibility for implementing the withdrawal, and still keep the option open for the stab-in-the-back accusation later.

Robert Scheer, who was editor of Ramparts back in the day and was doing some pioneering investigative journalism back in the 1960s, still counts as a "left" critic of US foreign and domestic policies. But in Will Obama Stay the Course? 12/02/08, he sounds cautiously optimistic about Obama's Cabinet. "If there is a grand arc to Obama’s appointments strategy, it seems aimed at providing the appearance of continuity on the part of a leader who still promises to be very different."

Scheer, who seems to be forever in search of one of those fabled "moderate" Republicans - creatures who seem to be rare as unicorns these days - is even willing to find positive things about Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. And, for Scheer, the following means he downright giddy over Hillary Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State:

Finally, the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton seems a good one. To paraphrase Obama’s remarks during the primary debates, Hillary is peaceable enough, and also has the smarts to make a fine secretary of state. Her more hawkish rhetorical side will be muted by the position’s obligation to emphasize diplomacy. My prediction is that she will leave her mark by exploiting her pro-Israel creds to complete President Bill Clinton’s once-promising Mideast peace initiatives to finally provide the Palestinians, and Israelis, with viable states.
So just who is it on the "left" that Saunders thinks is so despairing of the prospects under Obama? Maybe she picked up some Lyndon Larouche pamphlet and thought it represented the "left".

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