The U.S. debate on Iraq seems to hinge on timetables for withdrawal. That's it. But for Obama there are many things he could do to bring about change in Iraq, short of outright withdrawal, which nobody in the foreign policy community expects is imminent anyways. Here's my short list:
1) Visit Iraq. I know, it galls you to hear Republicans rip into you for not having swung by Baghdad lately. But this will be your last trip to Iraq (before becoming prez) to see Iraq unencumbered by secret service goons. Heck, you might even be able to sneak up to Mosul, browse a market in Baquba, or buy a contraband "Greater Kurdistan" map in Erbil. Yes it will be orchestrated and the Iraqis you meet will be reading off cue cards. But relish this last chance to visit Iraq as a U.S. senator.
2) Bring more Iraqi refugees here. Every American should hold their head in shame at how incompetent our government -- with its billions of dollars of supplemental war funds -- can't scrounge enough cash to expedite the visa process for Iraqi interpreters and offer asylum to more Iraqis fleeing violence. We prefer instead to pass the buck to Jordan, Sweden and Syria -- none of which even supported our dumb invasion to begin with but are stuck with the messy fallout. If Brangelina can spend $1 million for Iraqi children, an Obama-led government can spend more millions assisting these refugees.
3) Show the war, in all its grisly detail. Whether this means broadcasting American coffins as they return from Iraq or showing more of the fighting up close, the war feels so far removed from the average American because the footage of the war has been so sparse. Not only have Americans not had to share in the sacrifice, we are spared even the sight of any of the blood-soaked violence. Obama should call for more coverage of the war, not less.
4) Talk to Sadr's people. It is inevitable that his band of Shiites will wield enormous power in whatever Iraqi government emerges in the next few years. He also has close ties to Iran which could prove valuable, and neither of us wants Iraq to break down into three federalized states. Sure there is little indication his people would be willing to talk to us but some kind of back-channel diplomacy, however limited, would benefit out long-term interests in Iraq.
5) Reach a status-of-forces agreement that treats Iraqis as equals. What boggles me, as someone who has written about Iraq for the past four years, is how little we actually care about the lives of Iraqis. Even the Orwellian term we call their casualties--"collateral damage"--smacks of imperial hubris. No wonder then that Baghdad is bristling over the status-of-forces agreement that does not allow Iraqis ownership of their own legal system (or at least lets them try Americans accused of murdering or raping Iraqis). Add to that the suspicion of a long-term U.S. military presence, buttressed by our multimillion-dollar, middle-finger-like embassy in downtown Baghdad, and it's no surprise the Iraqis are ticked.
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