Quite unintentionally, Barack Obama’s much-hyped international tour is shaping up to be the perfect metaphor for the presumptive Democratic nominee’s diplomatic posture. On the premier foreign-policy question of the day – the Iraq war – Obama is all over the map.
During the primaries, Obama staked out a rigidly anti-Iraq platform. In recent weeks, however, he discovered the virtue of pragmatism. In a July 2 interview with the Military Times, Obama made two striking concessions. First, he acknowledged – as many in his party will not – that substantial progress is being made in Iraq. In this connection, he alluded to “reductions in violence and stabilizations” and “improvements on the part of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police.” For a candidate who had decried the troop surge that made these improvements possible, and who had confidently forecast that the force buildup would only further destabilize the country, it was a backhanded admission that he had been wrong and his opponents, including John McCain and the Bush administration, had been right.
Equally significant was Obama’s other concession. For the first time in his campaign, he acknowledged that any drawdown of troops would have to be contingent on events on the ground and the counsel of American generals and Iraqi leaders. To that end, Obama said that any pullout would be carried out “in consultation with the Iraqi government, at a pace that is determined in consultation with General Petraeus and the other commanders on the ground.” It was a stark rebuff to his own oft-repeated pledge to remove all troops from Iraq within 16 months. Critics had scorned the pledge as irresponsible: By prematurely removing American forces, Obama risked undermining the hard-won gains of the past year. Now Obama seemed to agree. Indeed, he specifically stressed that he would not support a “precipitous” withdrawal.
Was this a new Barack Obama? Bolstering the impression was Obama’s announcement, at a July 3 press conference in North Dakota, that he would “continue to refine” his position on troop withdrawal. Showing a newfound flexibility, Obama revealed that he would visit Iraq later in the month, at which point “I’m going to do a thorough assessment when I’m there.” At the very least, those comments suggested that Obama’s 16-month timeline was not etched in stone. And, indeed, the 16-month pledge promptly disappeared from his campaign website.
But the moment of clarity proved to be just that. Within hours of his press conference, Obama recanted his previous remarks. Protesting that he had been misunderstood, Obama insisted that his words did not mean what everyone, not least a generally sympathetic press corps, had taken them to mean. He was still committed to a 16-month withdrawal, Obama affirmed, declaring that his “position has not changed.” Although the claim failed the most elementary test of logic – it was impossible to reconcile his rejection of precipitous withdrawal and artificial timelines with his rediscovered support for both – Obama stood his ground.
Since then, Obama’s Iraq stance has become progressively mired in contradiction. A revealing example was his New York Times op-ed on Iraq last week. In it, Obama praised the surge for “bringing down the level of violence.” But he also wrote that “the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true.” Seeing as one of those factors was his erroneous belief that the surge would not reduce violence, it was unclear what, if anything, the statement meant.
Also in conflict with the facts was Obama’s assertion that staying in Iraq “runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people.” Inconveniently for that argument, Obama’s Times op-ed appeared the same week as a report by the paper found support for Obama among Iraqis but little enthusiasm for his proposed withdrawal. Among Iraqis interviewed by the Times – a broad spectrum ranging from middle-class urbanites to military generals – a firm consensus held that American troops should stay – at least for the time being. Obama’s gospel of “change” may have won over the Democratic electorate, but Iraqis weren’t interested.
Flawed reasoning aside, the very fact that Obama would commit to an Iraq plan before visiting the country and consulting with military leaders belied his earlier promise.
How did Obama account for these inconsistencies? Before he had to answer, Obama was saved by the news cycle. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an interview this Saturday with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, appeared to endorse Obama’s withdrawal plan and, by extension, the candidate himself. Asked about a timeline, Maliki replied: “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” Separately, the Bush administration announced that it had agreed on a “general time horizon” for a withdrawal with the Iraqi government.
Obama’s spokesmen swiftly claimed vindication. In their account, Obama’s position on Iraq was identical to the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Susan Rice, Obama’s foreign policy advisor, even made the immodest suggestion that it was the White House that was following Obama’s lead. “I think [the Bush administration] discovered in terms of their negotiations with the Iraqi government that the Iraqi [position is] strikingly close to Obama’s position, if not identical,” Rice exulted.
The reality was more complicated. Iraqi spokesmen retracted Maliki’s comments, saying they “were misunderstood, mistranslated and not conveyed accurately.” In fact, the prime minister’s position remained unchanged: While he favored the withdrawal of American troops, sooner rather than later, it would be determined by the security situation, not specific timelines. As it happens, that is the Bush administration’s view.
It also may be Barack Obama’s, if past statements are any guide. But whether they are is an open question. Vacillating between an accelerated withdrawal that would threaten fragile gains and airy promises to revise his views at some unnamed date, Obama has fashioned an Iraq policy that is substantively incoherent. Small wonder that, according to Time magazine, many Iraqis are confused about Obama’s plan for their country. They’re not the only ones.