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.”