02/11/2008 11:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mindless Media Ignores Iraq Plan

It seems so long since anyone in the big media asked a serious question about Iraq. Just too much work, I guess.  Last night 60 Minutes had the chance to talk to Hillary Clinton about anything, but did they ask her a question about Iraq?  Not even close. Instead, Katie Couric asked Senator Clinton: Are you still friends with Barack Obama?

Meanwhile, Americans who are not Katie Couric want to know how these two candidates would differ as presidents.  How would America be different were Clinton to be elected as opposed to Obama?

The plans for Iraq laid out by Obama and Clinton offer key answers to that question.

Overall, the difference can be summed up as: "Big Vision, Small Print" for Obama versus "Effective Executive, Modest Outcomes" for Clinton.

Obama: Big Vision, But Small Print

At first glance, the Obama plan for Iraq seems to be based on four key points:

  1. Bringing Our Troops Home
  2. Press Iraq's Leaders to Reconcile
  3. Regional Diplomacy
  4. Humanitarian Initiative

As with most of Obama's campaign, however, these four points are the beginning of the details of a plan which is heavily tilted towards a big vision.  In this case, Obama's big vision is an idea of himself as a leader who always believed the war in Iraq was wrong.  In this opening passage of Obama's Iraq plan, notice how he uses the words 'judgment' and 'occupation' to define his vision:

Barack Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. In 2002, as the conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war, Obama had the judgment and courage to speak out against the war. He said the war would lead to "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences." In January 2007, Obama introduced legislation to responsibly end the war in Iraq, with a phased withdrawal of troops engaged in combat operations.  As the nation debates how to move forward in Iraq, Obama laid out his plan to end the war, as well as his vision for what America can achieve once we turn the page in Iraq.

("Barack Obama: Turning The Page On Iraq")

In other words, the problem we face in Iraq is "an occupation" without end, the result of bad judgment at the onset.  Indeed, the paired ideas of judgment and occupation are the keys to understanding exactly what it is that Obama is proposing.  Through his good judgment, Obama is telling voters, he will be able to end the occupation.

Now, hidden within Obama's logic is a somewhat frustrating, albeit revealing, contradiction.  Even though Obama claims that he wants to end the occupation in Iraq, he is quick to remind voters that his judgment will ultimately determine how this happens.  When pushed on his plan to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2009, Obama always makes clear that his judgment will supersede any plan.   He lays out a plan for ending the occupation, he claims that U.S. troop withdrawal is the key to brokering peace in the region, but all of it depends on his judgment moving forward in time.

The big vision will stay the same,in other words, but the fine print will likely change. 

For many Americans, this comes as a welcome approach.  Many Democrats in particular welcome the idea of a President who defines the problem in Iraq as an occupation, who opposes the entire situation on principle, and who lays out fine details. 

Obama's approach, however, will likely lead to a kind of parsing of policy details that many Americans will find frustrating, if not outright annoying.

Given how much emphasis Obama has placed on using his judgment to evaluate the situation moving forward, it seems virtually impossible that he would carry out his plan to withdraw all combat troops by 2009.  Given how volatile Iraq has been, it seems far more likely that a few violent months in Iraq would lead Obama to judge that a slowdown would be appropriate.

With Obama as President, it seems likely that his big vision would lead to long and complicated press conferences where a President Obama was trying to explain--earnestly and honestly explain--the nuances in a subtly shifting policy.

Would the occupation end under an Obama presidency?  Unlikely.  Still, it seems inevitable that an Obama presidency would significantly change the occupation and tilt the country towards the belief that the occupation was in the process of ending.

All the while, it seems likely that even as president, Obama would continue to frame his approach to Iraq in terms of his judgment as someone who opposed the war from the start.

Clinton: Effective Executive, But Modest Outcomes

At first glance, the Clinton plan for Iraq seems to be based on four familiar points:

  1. Starting Phased Redeployment within Hillary's First Days in Office
  2. Securing Stability in Iraq as we Bring our Troops Home
  3. A New Intensive Diplomatic Initiative in the Region
  4. Reconstruction Funding

Not unlike other aspects of Clinton's campaign, the Iraq proposal is framed by the idea of a big start from the moment Clinton gets into office.  Rather than walking into the White House with a detailed plan for withdrawal, Clinton will immediately convene a panel of top military and policy advisers to draw up the plan.  She would then implement that plan to withdraw a certain number of troops in the first year of her presidency.  In this passage from her plan, notice how Clinton names the specific parts of the executive branch:

As President, one of Hillary's first official actions would be to
convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council. She would direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days of her Administration. She would also direct the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare a comprehensive plan to provide the highest quality health care and benefits to every service member -- including every member of the National Guard and Reserves -- and their families.

("Hillary Clinton: Ending the War in Iraq")

This is the first big difference between Obama and Clinton.  Whereas Obama puts his judgment at the forefront of his Iraq plan, Clinton by contrast places her executive skill at the forefront of her plan. 

Clinton's big vision which she projects in her Iraq plan is that of an effective executive set on delivering more modest, tangible outcomes.  These paired aspects of her Iraq  plan will likely set the tone for her presidency.

Rather than talking about vision, a Clinton presidency would likely spend time reporting outcomes.  This approach would likely bring press conferences where President Hillary Clinton would lay out the modest gains her policies have made on the ground. 

This brings us to the second difference between Obama and Clinton: how they would talk about detail.

Ironically, an Obama presidency would more likely lead to a President who spent time talking to the public about the details of Iraq.  Even though the Clinton campaign has not pushed as much big vision, her plan for Iraq suggests that she would be a President who would try to keep the focus of discussion on the big picture and on reporting gains.

Conclusion:  Visionary vs. Executive, Parsing vs. Reporting

Whatever can be said about the similarities between Clinton and Obama on policy, their Iraq plans suggest two very different potential presidencies.

Waking up in President Barack Obama's America would would mean lots of 'big vision' speeches tempered by media discussions of 'what the President meant' when he said x, y and z in his last press conference.

Waking up in President Hillary Clinton's America would mean lots of 'effective executive' speeches tempered by media discussions of 'what to make of the President's claims' when she listed x, y and z gains during her last press conference.

With Obama in the White House, Americans will be inspired, but likely frustrated by the constant parsing of ideas.

With Clinton in the White House, Americans will have confidence in her skill, but often doubtful about the actual progress being made.

With Obama in the White House, Americans will be pleased to see troops come home in the first part of 2009, but left anxious and concerned when troop withdrawal likely slows down by early 2010.

With Clinton in the White House, Americans will be relieved when troops start coming home within 60 days, but impatient that despite the troop withdrawal, Iraq will still look and feel like an American occupation in 2010.

With Obama in the White House, Americans will be proud of big speeches about foreign policy given by the President on the international diplomatic stage, but skeptical that these speeches have changed reality on the ground.

With Clinton in the White House, Americans will will be proud of vast sums of reconstruction money raised by the President, but alarmed when this reconstruction money does not lead quickly to humanitarian gains in Iraq.

Either way, Iraq is going to continue to be violent, unpredictable, and expensive. But...

Which future would Americans prefer? 

We may very well have an answer to that question by the first week in March, after the Texas and Ohio contests for the Democratic nomination.

Will Barack and Hillary remain best friends forever? 

Katie Couric will keep us up to date on that story as it develops. 

(cross posted from Frameshop)