On Iraq, An Important Semantic Debate

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The Obama campaign wants to finesse the debate about Iraq withdrawal by referring to Obama's "tactical" flexibility; he'd like to begin immediately withdrawing one to two a month which would be sixteen months in total, and to ensure that we do it responsibly. (The phrase "Careful Out, Careless In" has become commonplace enough.) Tactics here do not apply to Obama's vow, which is to order his generals to devise a strategy for immediate withdrawal. "I intend to end this war my first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in and I will give them a new mission and that is to end this war." Tactics mean how many "residual" troops might be needed to "in order to train the Iraqis to stand up," to figure out how to best support political negotiations and the distribution of oil revenues. On the one hand, this is indeed the position that Obama had months ago -- the position expressed by Obama when in a contemplative mode or by advisers when they were explaining his policy. (See an Obama campaign memo after the jump for examples.) On the other hand, it is also true that, many times, Obama and his advisers used his troop withdrawal promise -- see David Plouffe's "crystal" clarity -- without nuance and deliberately in the sort of short hand that implies that the opinion of the generals in regards to Obama's strategy won't matter that much at all.

Here is the McCain campaign's response to Obama's press conferences:

Since announcing his campaign in 2007, the central premise of Barack Obama's candidacy was his commitment to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq immediately. He campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country reaffirming this pledge to the American people.

"Today, Barack Obama reversed that position proving once again that his words do not matter. He has now adopted John McCain's position that we cannot risk the progress we have made in Iraq by beginning to withdraw our troops immediately without concern for conditions on the ground. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind when the facts on the ground dictate it. Indeed, the facts have changed because of the success of the surge that John McCain advocated for years and Barack Obama opposed in a position that put politics ahead of country.

"Now that Barack Obama has changed course and proven his past positions to be just empty words, we would like to congratulate him for accepting John McCain's principled stand on this critical national security issue. If he had visited Iraq sooner or actually had a one-on-one meeting with General Petraeus, he would have changed his position long ago."

Well, Obama doesn't believe that the Surge is working and still plans to withdraw troops a much more rapid, context-independent rate than McCain. In many ways, the Obama shift in emphasis and the subsequent charges that he had changed his position were inevitable, and Obama's in a bit of a box here that he legitimately tried to avoid by studding his withdrawal promise with cautious caveats from the beginning.

June 2008: Obama: I’ve Consistently Said That I Will Consult With Military Commanders On The Ground And Be Open To The Possibility Of Tactical Adjustments. Obama said, “I've also consistently said that I will consult with military commanders on the ground and that we will always be open to the possibility of tactical adjustments. The important thing is to send a clear signal to the Iraqi people and most importantly to the Iraqi leadership that the U.S. occupation in Iraq is finite, it is gonna be coming to a foreseeable end.” [MSNBC, 6/16/08]



March 2008: Obama Said He Would Give Senior Military Leaders Opinions Great Weight In Implementing His Iraq Plan But As Commander In Chief Would Make His Own Assessment Of The Situation. Obama was asked “what weight will you give to the counsel of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander, the combatant commander on the ground in Iraq and current intelligence chiefs on the ground in Iraq regarding an immediate phased withdrawal?” Obama said, “I will give their counsel great weight. But, as commander in chief, it is my responsibility to make my own assessment of the situation. We must send a clear signal to the Iraqi political leadership that we are leaving Iraq on a timeline. Doing so will put pressure on those leaders to begin to resolve the political impasse at the heart of this civil war. But I also want to be clear about another thing. I am worried our Army is overstretched and that we have asked an awful lot from our military families. Many in our senior military leadership are worried about a plan that will keep 130,000 troops on the ground in Iraq for the foreseeable future. So, as commander in chief, I will also have to take into consideration the counsel of other senior military leaders who may be concerned that Iraq is undercutting our ability to confront other security challenges.” [Washington Post, 3/2/08]



March 2008: Obama Said The Size Of The Residual Force Will Depend On Consultation With Military Commanders And “Will Depend On The Circumstances On The Ground.” Obama said, “The precise size of the residual force will depend on consultations with our military commanders and will depend on the circumstances on the ground, including the willingness of the Iraqi government to move toward political accommodation. But let me be clear on one thing: I will end this war, and there will be far fewer Americans in Iraq conducting a much more limited set of missions that include counterterrorism and protection of our embassy and U.S. civilians.” [Washington Post, 3/2/08]



November 2007: Obama Said He Would Leave Residual Troops In Iraq Based On The Levels Of Violence, “It’s Not My Job To Specify Troop Levels.” Obama said, “If we see a serious effort by the Iraqi leadership to arrive at an agreement and an accommodation and you've seen continued reductions of violence, then you need one level of troop protection for the embassy…If things have gone to hell in a hand basket then you need another ... It's not my job to specify troop levels. My job is to tell our commanders on the ground, ‘Here's your mission. Protect our embassy, protect our diplomats and our humanitarian workers in the area and make sure al Qaeda in Iraq, or other terrorist organizations inside of Iraq are not re-establishing bases there.” [Fosters, 11/28/07]



November 2007: Obama Said U.S. Has To Make Sure “We Are Not Just Willy-Nilly Removing Troops” And That It May “Take A Little Bit Longer” In Some Areas Where There Is Less Stability. “According to all the reports, we should have been well along our way in getting the Iraqi security forces to be more functional. We then have another 16 months after that to adjust the withdrawal and make sure that we are withdrawing from those areas, based on advice from the military officers in the field, those places where we are secured, made progress and we’re not just willy-nilly removing troops, but we’re making a determination – in this region we see some stability. We’ve had cooperation from local tribal leaders and local officials, so we can afford to remove troops here. Here, we’ve still got problems, it’s going to take a little bit longer. Maybe those are the last areas to pull out.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]



November 2007: Obama: “If The Commanders Tell Me They Need X, Y And Z, In Order To Accomplish The Very Narrow Mission That I’ve Laid Out, Than I Will Take That Into Consideration.” “You raise a series of legitimate questions. As commander in chief, I’m not going to leave trainers unprotected. In our counterterrorism efforts, I’m not going to have a situation where our efforts can’t be successful. We will structure those forces so they can be successful. We would still have human intelligence capabilities on the ground. Some of them would be civilian, as opposed to military, some would be operating out of our bases as well as our signal intelligence…But listen, I am not going to set up our troops for failure and I’m going to do something half-baked. If the commanders tell me that they need X, Y and Z, in order to accomplish the very narrow mission that I’ve laid out, than I will take that into consideration.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]



November 2007: Obama: “Even Something As Simple As Protecting Our Embassy Is Going To Dependent On What Is The Security In Baghdad…If There Is Some Sense Of Security, Then That Means One Level Of Force. If You Continue To Have Significant Sectarian Conflict, That Means Another.” “I have not ascribed particular numbers to that and I won’t for precisely the reason I was just talking to Michael about. I want to talk to military folks on the ground, No. 1. No. 2, a lot of it depends on what’s happened on the political front and the diplomatic front. Even something as simple as protecting our embassy is going to be dependent on what is the security environment in Baghdad. If there is some sense of security, then that means one level of force. If you continue to have significant sectarian conflict, that means another, but this is an area where Senator Clinton and I do have a significant contrast.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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