How the Candidates Differ on Iraq

I don’t know how I missed it but yesterday in the New York Times Michael Gordon had what I think was a very fair and balanced assessment of the differences between Sen. Barack Obama’s and Sen. John McCain’s current positions on Iraq which I commend to your attention. In the article Mr. Gordon clears up at least one common misperception, i.e. that Sen. Obama plans to remove all troops from Iraq within 16 months:

Seeking to preserve a measure of flexibility, Mr. Obama said that he would “reserve the right to pause a withdrawal” if it led to a major increase in sectarian violence. He also reiterated that he planned to keep a residual military force to pursue militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protect American installations and personnel, and, if Iraqi forces conducted themselves in a nonsectarian manner, train Iraqi troops.

Mr. Obama said that such a residual force would probably include Special Operations forces, teams of military advisers, combat planes, attack helicopters, medical helicopters and perhaps some smaller-scale combat units to protect the advisers.

He declined to estimate the size of the force, saying he would decide that after consulting commanders. But Richard J. Danzig, a secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration who is regarded as a likely choice to serve as Mr. Obama’s secretary of defense, said in a June interview with National Public Radio that it could number from 30,000 to 55,000 troops.

This underscores a point I’ve been making for some time. Events have overtaken the argument about Iraq. A good portion of the difference between the two candidates is now rhetorical. Sen. Obama is likely to withdraw some of our forces from Iraq, leave a residual force of some size in Iraq, and call it “ending the war” while Sen. McCain is likely to withdraw some of our forces from Iraq, leave a residual force of some size in Iraq, and call it “winning the war”. Partisans will hail their preferred candidate’s position as the correct one and castigate the opponent’s position as foolhardy.

There’s one other point on which I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gordon. The two candidates differ in their views of the importance of the mission in Iraq:

At its most basic, the dispute between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain centers on the importance of the American mission. For Mr. Obama, the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and the efforts he would make there are essentially a matter of damage limitation. By defining a series of minimal goals, Mr. Obama would seek to reduce American forces.

Toward that end, Mr. Obama said his objective was a sovereign Iraq that was not a threat to the United States or its neighbors, was capable of controlling its own borders, was not a “base camp” for terrorists and was not experiencing “mass violence.” He said that it would be important that “the will of the Iraqi people is being expressed” though “the machinery of democracy may not be perfect.”

“I have to think about the fact that given our current levels of deployment our military is stretched very thin, and if we have a sudden situation, let’s say in North Korea right now, we have got some issues,” Mr. Obama said. “And that is before we start talking about the expenditures involved at a time when the administration just announced they want a $700 billion credit line. So that is the lens through which I view the situation in Iraq.”

For Sen. Obama, then, Iraq is mostly a distraction. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, sees Iraq as more significant:

“I agreed with both General Petraeus and Osama bin Laden, who both said that Iraq was the central battleground in this struggle,” Mr. McCain said. “And I also believe that Afghanistan is going to be a longer struggle in some respects. But the most important thing was that if we failed in Iraq, that it would have had adverse consequences throughout the region.”

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Brett says:

    Obama’s view sounds kind of like Realpolitik; he wants a secure Iraq that won’t be home to terrorism – the key interest of the United States – and which would allow a number of US forces to stay on board if necessary (which has the added convenience of allowing us to keep military bases in the area). The way he put it, a democratic Iraq is secondary – nice, but not the most important thing for us.

  2. LaurenceB says:


    What exactly has McCain said that makes you believe he plans to “withdraw some of our forces from Iraq, leaving a residual force”? Has he ever said that, or are you just projecting what you would like to think he believes?

  3. Beldar says:

    Dave: Obama’s been all over the map on Iraq. Any position you can imagine, anywhere on the spectrum from hard-right to hard-left, I can find you Barack Obama quotations to support.

    No one has any clue what he’d actually do. That includes Barack Obama.

    No one can doubt, however, that if he’s elected, it will be due to the fanatical support he’s received from the crowd, who at least think they own him, and who were against even the war in Afghanistan.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    The Bush Administration has already withdrawn some forces from Iraq and I believe that whoever is president will withdraw more since the conditions in Iraq allows and the rotation scheme requires it.

    The current troop commitment in Iraq is unsustainable and anything that’s unsustainable won’t be sustained regardless of who’s president.

  5. anjin-san says:

    Osama bin Laden, who both said that Iraq was the central battleground in this struggle,”

    How hard is it to connect the dots? Bin Landen made it very clear that he plans to bring us down economically. He has kept up in Iraq, month after month, year after year, bleeding us economically.

    Look at our economy. Think about the money we have spent in Iraq and what it might have bought us at home.