One can only hope that the Obama campaign will completely ignore George Packer’s political advice on Iraq:
Obama has shown, with his speech on race, that he has a talent for candor. One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, “That was always a goal, not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don’t close my eyes—I adapt.”
It’s really hard to overstate how stupid listening to Packer would be – on both a policy and political level.
But first, a word about Packer. Look, he’s a smart guy – and Assassin’s Gate is a phenomenal book. If you don’t have it, you should go buy it – it’s that good. But let’s face it – he has some conflicts of interest here. He was a war supporter and has a vested interest in being proven correct. Plus, Packer routinely suffers from Broderian false equivalence in his recent Iraq writing, which always strains to equate the relative badness of war supporters with war critics. If only we could see above the fray, as he does…
Anyway, on to policy. To be clear, I don’t want Obama to get up and lie. If he thinks withdrawal has become an unwise policy, then he should acknowledge that. But the fact that George Packer says it’s unwise policy doesn’t make it so. While Packer apparently believes that reduced violence strengthens the case for indefinite occupation, I would argue that it does just the opposite. (By the way, what facts actually would support withdrawal? Are there any?)
Admittedly, the surge has played a partial role in reducing violence, but not as much as other events such as the Awakening political agreement and ethnic cleansing. (Notably, Packer concedes this). But reducing violence wasn’t the goal of the surge – neither is it the goal of the occupation more generally. There has to be some political endgame – and I’ve never seen this endgame articulated in anything but the most make-believe fairy tale terms.
In any event, it’s not at all obvious that our occupation is making things better over the long term. Indeed, you could just as easily argue that our ongoing presence is a long-term destabilizing force, which is hardening ethnic divisions by supporting a government that's essentially a Shiite militia with fancier clothes. Plus, Iraq is a post-colonial country whose people want us gone.
But the larger point is that there must be some endpoint – some way to know when our mission will be over. It’s not fair to our soldiers or to the Iraqi people to continue the occupation hoping for the pony.
In this sense, Packer’s “conditional engagement” is, frankly, Bush-lite in that it’s simply calling for troops to hang around while hoping longer-term political reconciliation will materialize. There’s no concrete sense at all, however, of when troops would be allowed to come home.
For instance, Packer writes that conditional engagement would (1) keep heat on the politicians; and (2) allow for a phased withdrawal based on the facts on the ground. You can dress that up however you’d like, but that’s essentially Bush’s “run out the clock” strategy. You don’t keep heat on politicians by never leaving, but by leaving. And as I’ve noted, there are apparently no facts on the ground that would justify leaving. Packer’s policy simply shifts the inevitable, politically painful decision to someone else, while allowing him to escape blame for the consequences.
But policy aside, embracing Packer’s strategy would be complete political suicide. Obama won the nomination largely because of his opposition to Iraq. McCain was forced by the dynamics of the GOP primary to hug tightly to an extremely unpopular president on his most unpopular issue. Packer is essentially urging Obama to go hug Bush from the other side.
The beauty of an Obama-McCain contest from the Democratic perspective is that it offers the type of clean contrast that Kerry couldn’t provide. War supporter vs. war opponent. Bush III v. change. And so on. To change course at this point and adopt the Bush “let’s wait and see” approach would undermine the whole thing. Again, it would be different if staying in was clearly the right policy – but it’s not. George Packer has been wrong before.
To be honest, I’ve been less than impressed with Obama in the general. Some movement to the center is to be expected – that’s American politics in the shadow of the Electoral College. But what’s troubling is how defensive he seems on the foreign policy front (Clark, AIPAC Iran pandering, etc.). It’s frustrating because his seeming lack of defensiveness on these issues is precisely why he was superior to Clinton.
On this issue, though, it’s absolutely vital that the campaign resist the defensiveness. They should take a page from Rove and flatly ignore the Packer/Broders of the world on Iraq. The country is over Iraq – they want it done. There’s no need to keep wasting American and Iraqi life to vindicate George Packer.