Within the first weeks after receiving enough delegates to secure the nomination, Barack Obama should go to Iraq and meet with General Petraeus without preconditions. There would be a lot of preparation. The first steps would not be to pre-judge all the items on the list.
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Obama hasn't been to Iraq since January 2006, before the Golden Mosque bombing by al Qaeda. A lot has happened since then. Last Monday, John McCain invited Obama to join him on his upcoming visit to Iraq. The Obama campaign flatly rejected the offer. Bill Burton, campaign spokesman:
John McCain's proposal is nothing more than a political stunt, and we don't need any more 'Mission Accomplished' banners or walks through Baghdad markets to know that Iraq's leaders have not made the political progress that was the stated purpose of the surge. The American people don't want any more false promises of progress, they deserve a real debate about a war that has overstretched our military, and cost us thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars without making us safer.
I'm pretty sure McCain won't pull out a 'Mission Accomplished' banner on a joint trip, and I'm also pretty sure that Obama could exclude any walks with McCain through Baghdad markets. Ed Morrissey:
If they’re worried about the military giving them a dog-and-pony show, the answer isn’t to decline the trip but to counterpropose a more comprehensive trip than even McCain’s suggesting and turn it into a real fact-finding mission. Don’t spend two hours looking at charts with Petraeus. Take four or five days; go to Basra and Mosul. If they simply can’t suspend campaigning for that long, send a joint team of advisors from both sides.
After all, Iraq is in the top two of top-two issues in this country. It seems reasonable to me that Obama should go there and see for himself what's taking place, and get his information directly from the source (or sources). In addition to Mosul and Basra, perhaps he could even go to Diyala province now that it's been pacified. Anyway, it's heartening to hear that Obama is at least considering going there:
Senator Barack Obama said today that he is considering visiting American troops and commanders in Iraq this summer. He declined an invitation from Senator John McCain to take a joint trip to Iraq, saying, "I just don’t want to be involved in a political stunt." In a brief interview here, Mr. Obama said his campaign was considering taking a foreign trip after he secures the Democratic presidential nomination. No details have been set, he said, but added: "Iraq would obviously be at the top of the list of stops."
Mr. Obama suggested today that any foreign itinerary would include a stop in Iraq. "I think that if I’m going to Iraq, then I’m there to talk to troops and talk to commanders, I’m not there to try to score political points or perform," Mr. Obama said. "The work they’re doing there is too important."
Mr. McCain responded with a touch of sarcasm to the news that Mr. Obama was thinking about going to Iraq. "I certainly was just a short time ago glad to hear that Senator Obama is now, quote, considering a trip to Iraq," Mr. McCain said at a news conference late in the day in Los Angeles. "It’s long overdue, it’s been 871 days since he was there. And I’m confident that when he goes he will then change his position on the conflict in Iraq, because he will see the success that has been achieved on the ground."
Again, Ed Morrissey:
Just so we’re clear, a "political stunt" would be letting McCain cow him into a joint trip to Iraq. Letting McCain cow him into a solo trip? Not a stunt.
It would also be interesting to see if Obama does change his 16-month cut-and-run policy after a visit to Iraq, considering that there are strong indicators that the strategy is working*. I'm doubtful that he will. Why? Because his "plan" is too diametrically opposed to the current strategy, and in my view, he's too politically invested to change it because such a change would anger and inflame the very base that propelled him to the nomination. There would be hell to pay from the Hard Partisan Left. Obama's withdrawal proposal is a direct and complete rejection of the counterinsurgency strategy crafted by General Petraeus, and his opposition to the strategy has been longstanding. Here's what Obama said on January 5, 2007:
Meanwhile, Obama said he told the president directly that an "escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake." Obama was among more than a dozen senators of both parties who were invited to the White House to discuss his plans for Iraq. Bush plans to continue to meet with lawmakers and is expected to announce his new Iraq strategy next week in an address to the nation. "It was an open-ended discussion," Obama told reporters after the meeting. "The president asked for our opinions. I think both Republican and Democratic senators expressed grave concern about the situation in Iraq." "I personally indicated that an escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake and that we need a political accommodation, rather than a military approach to the sectarian violence there," said Obama. Asked for the president's reaction, Obama said: "I think he is considering it very carefully. They've obviously run that possibility through the traps. He did not say definitively that that's the decision he had made." No specific figure was mentioned for the proposed increase in troops during the meeting, Obama said.
The COIN strategy envisions a political accommodation AND a military approach. Obama rejected this, favoring the former but not the latter. On February 16, 2007, the House approved the following resolution: "Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq." It passed 246-182, but the Senate version failed to clear cloture. Obama voted in favor of putting the resolution to a vote. Twelve months later, Obama's rejection of the present strategy remains in full force and effect. After foreign policy advisor Samantha Power said that Obama's proposal to withdraw all combat brigades in 16 months was a "best case scenario", the Obama campaign disowned her:
Unfortunately, the best-case scenario does not usually apply in Iraq. That is why it was perfectly appropriate for British television reporters to challenge former Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power about how he would respond to an unraveling security situation in the country. She gave what seemed like a common-sense response: Obama will be guided by the circumstances on the ground and the advice of his military commanders, and will not be locked into a plan that he produced more than a year earlier while running for president. Power's candor was evidently too much for the Obama camp, which promptly disowned her remarks.
Michael Dobbs didn't mention that the Obama campaign also disowned Power because she called Hillary Clinton a "monster"
on British television to a UK newspaper. Nevertheless, the campaign directly repudiated both her "best case scenario" remarks and the "Hillary is a monster" comment. The reality may be that Obama will sign on to the Petraeus strategy if elected, but I don't see any indications of it right now. So as it stands, by dint of his "plan", he must believe that our endeavor in Iraq is irretrievably lost, so the only rationale alternative is to remove our troops with haste. Because of the numbers, the logistics, the bases and whatnot, 16 months is pretty hasty and, to me, it's likely that such a rapid departure would conflict with the latest January 2007 NIE on Iraq.
Changing gears a little, last April I wrote a post on Ambassador Crocker's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Political progress has been made, but surely not as quickly as anyone likes. The main Sunni bloc's recent suspension of talks on national reconciliation is an example of the volatility and fragility of the process. But it is a process. The national government has shown some willingness to incorporate Sunnis into the military forces, but only haltingly. Al Maliki is stronger politically, but he needs to do more.
* Here's another indicator that the COIN strategy is working. News coverage is way down:
During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the newshole fornetwork TV news. In 2008, it plummeted to 3 percent during that period. On cable networks it fell from 24 percent to 1 percent, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The numbers also were dismal for the country's dailies. By Acuna's count, during the first three months of this year, front-page stories about Iraq in the Bee were down 70 percent from the same time last year. Articles about Iraq once topped the list for reader feedback. By mid-2007, "Their interest just dropped off; it was noticeable to me," says the public editor.
It's not bleeding, so it's not leading.