Getting Out of Iraq

In a rare harmonic convergence, the Hillary-to-State news has Daniel Larison and Michael Goldfarb arguing along similar lines, joining the chorus of voices who see Obama's likely national-security appointments as a blow to those who hoped for a real progressive turn in foreign policy. Having basically made this argument myself, let me offer one thought by way of counterpoint - namely, that foreign policy is one arena where progressives might (might!) end up being well-served by having their agenda implemented by other people.

By "their agenda" I mean specifically the withdrawal from Iraq, which Chris Hayes, the world's smartest progressive, has long insisted is the one issue where Obama absolutely has to deliver for the left if he doesn't want to provoke a full-scale progressive revolt. As Iraq has grown more stable and the rest of the world more chaotic, it's become easy to lose sight of just how difficult disentangling ourselves from our Mesopotamian occupation may turn out to be. Both his own promises and the agreements we've made with the Iraqi government bind Obama to make the attempt: We will not, I'm certain, withdraw with the kind of haste that he promised in his primary campaign, but we will withdraw nonetheless. But there will be difficulties - maybe a lot of difficulties - along the way, and it's very easy to imagine a scenario in which the withdrawal from Iraq ends up dominating the foreign-affairs side of the ledger in Obama's first term, and not necessarily in a good way. And by putting the job in the hands of Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton - a Republican appointee and a primary-season rival who attacked him from the right on foreign policy - Obama has effectively given realists and liberal hawks partial ownership of whatever happens in Iraq between now and 2011. In a best-case scenario for progressives, Gates and Clinton will play the role Colin Powell played in the run-up to the Iraq War (except with a better final outcome, obviously): Their association with the policy will help keep non-progressives on board when things get dicey, and then once the job is done they'll be pushed aside and someone like Susan Rice will take over Obama's post-occupation foreign policy.

Obviously I don't really think it will work out quite like that. But just as the neoconservative agenda was better-served, at least in the short run, by having Powell as one of the public faces of Iraq War hawkery (rather than, say, John Bolton), I think there's at least a plausible scenario in which the progressive movement ends up being better off in the long run if Hillary Clinton, rather than someone to her left, is at the helm when a spasm of violence pushes Iraq back on to the front pages, and Republicans start accusing the Obama Administration of squandering the Bush-Petraeus gains with a too-precipitous withdrawal.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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