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Nothing New in Obama's Iraq Speech

03/19/2008 05:15 pm 17:15:00 | Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. Barack Obama marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War with a speech that will disappoint the peace movement while burnishing his hawkish credentials with the national security establishment and media.

He failed to point out that Hillary Clinton's plan may keep U.S. troops fighting in Iraq for five to eight more years.

He failed to dissociate from the grim counterinsurgency war envisioned by Gen. Petraeus.

He failed to connect the war with the economic devastation and energy quandaries facing the United States.

Instead, he simply repeated his plan to remove all U.S. combat divisions in 16 months. But he will "leave enough troops in Iraq to guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy." He will dispatch two of those withdrawn American combat brigades to Afghanistan, "to leverage greater assistance .- with fewer restrictions .- from our NATO allies." And he will unilaterally attack Pakistan's border region if there is "actionable intelligence" about high-level al Qaeda leadership there, a policy deeply unpopular among Pakistanis.

Under these proposals, Americans may be burdened with three quagmires -- Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There is no mention of the simmering war and failed diplomacy surrounding Gaza and the West Bank. And Iran will face "deeper isolation and steeper sanctions" unless it abandons its nuclear program and threats against Israel.

In addition, under Obama America's massive military capacity will increase by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines, as well as an expanded Special Forces. NATO will become "a larger and more nimble alliance."

In fairness, Obama also promises to expand America's "soft power" by doubling foreign assistance and cutting "extreme poverty" by half [worthy goals if they are met, but which would fall still fall short of John Kennedy's foreign aid levels measured as a percentage of gross domestic product].

This is not a peace plan, as much as it is a withdrawal-from-combat plan. More dying will be done by Iraqis. Obama offers a hawkish posture meant to reassure elites and voters who may be worried about Obama's credentials to be commander-in-chief. The plan may not work even in its own terms. The core issue in Iraq is the proposed Baker-Hamilton mission shift from an American combat role to Americans advising Iraqis to take over the combat role, which has failed so far. The number of Americans deployed in this counter-insurgency role would be greater than the number now in Afghanistan, including back-up forces.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, two more American brigades would be a down-payment on the full cost of a massive occupation war. And it is an extremely high risk venture, though not impossible, to attack al-Qaeda from the air in Pakistan's tribal areas without using American ground forces. Obama is offering a best-case scenario for the number and costs of troops that would be involved, even leaving out a future confrontation with Iran.

There is little peace dividend or domestic economic recovery implied by this security strategy.

Some of us have seen this before. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, accused variously of being too "youthful" or "Catholic," ran to the right of Richard Nixon on national security issues. He deliberately fabricated a "missile gap" to use against Nixon. He dreamed up the Green Berets as America's answer to Third World guerrillas. He appointed a conservative, technocratic Cold War cabinet and military leadership, including the certifiably-mad Curtis Le May who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Perhaps all this was necessary to win the presidency by less than one percent. We'll never know, but the civil rights and student movements supported him because he called the wife of Martin Luther King, and promised a Peace Corps, both in October.

Then Kennedy was manipulated straight into the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. One hundred U.S.-backed Cubans were killed and a thousand more were rounded up. Kennedy was humiliated, completely blind-sided by his own advisers. A fateful chain reaction was unleashed, with violent and hysterical Cuban exiles holding political sway over U.S. politics for a generation. (And as it turned out, after JFK was murdered, spending for Vietnam doomed the Great Society, America's cities went up in smoke, and 400,000 soldiers came home with bad papers or strung out.)

A new John Kennedy was born of this 1961 disaster, a Kennedy more suspicious of the CIA and the Pentagon, more interested in changing the Cold War relationship with the Soviets with its peril of nuclear war. Had he lived, things would have been different.

Will it take a disaster similar to the Bay of Pigs for Barack Obama to learn the lessons of John F. Kennedy?

Of course, Obama could get lucky. After somehow winning the presidency, Iraq might stabilize as Obama withdraws combat troops. Iran might collaborate. Osama Bin Ladin might be uncovered and killed, rendering al Qaeda ineffective and splintered. Afghanistan could unite under NATO banners. But there is little evidence that these scenarios will come to pass. The further pursuit of military strategies is more likely to bog America down in unsustainable commitments.

The only way for peace advocates to really commit themselves to Obama after this speech -- as I do -- is by clinging, first, to the importance he brings to our racial crisis; second, crediting him for an Iraq speech given five years ago, and third, assuming that he's just doing now what he has to do and is open to changing direction later. By the logic underlying Machiavellian politics, even McCain could withdraw from Iraq. We vote our hopes and illusions, and wait.

By inflating his military credentials, however, Obama may be deflating his greatest single qualification for leadership in a violent and uncertain time of globalization. By continuing to tell the lessons of his remarkable biracial, bicontinental life, Barack Obama could radically reduce the potential "terrorist base" among alienated young people the world over. By a willingness to commence diplomacy with our adversaries, he could buy time and open the space to reduce global violence, temporarily at least, in exchange for a dialogue about new beginnings between America and the Middle East, the Muslim world, and Latin America. But if he squanders all that "soft" power, he could fail to find political solutions and even become a target of Islamic hate like Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Mussharef and Benezir Bhutto.

In thinking further about Iraq in this unfinished campaign, the questions Obama needs to ask include these:

1. By what mechanisms will Iraq be "stabilized" while he withdraws all US combat divisions? In an unexplained throwaway line, he simply says "we will help Iraq reach a meaningful accord on national reconciliation."

2. How will fewer American troops, even Special Forces, successfully combat al Qaeda as the combat troops withdraw?

3. How many American troops will be left behind? A reasonable estimate is 50-100,000, including force protection.

4. Does he actually know who "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" is? Our media faithfully repeat that it is both "homegrown" and "led by foreign terrorists according to American intelligence." All sources report that it is a small fraction of the overall insurgency. To what extent will this al Qaeda decline in popular support as US combat forces withdraw, or will the continued presence of US Special Forces give them inviting targets for jihad?

5. Doesn't his hard line on Iran tend to preclude assistance from Iran in helping stabilizing Iraq for the withdrawal of American forces?

6. Isn't there a need for a Dayton-style diplomatic process on Iraq including all parties with stakes in a more stable Iraq, jump-started by an American pledge to withdraw all our troops in a reasonable time period? Unless there is a real likelihood of a power vacuum, why will any other parties collaborate in what appears to be a continued U.S.-occupation? What Obama says is vaguely promising "we will engage with every country in the region -- and the UN -- to support the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq...and launch a major humanitarian initiative to support Iraq's refugees."

After his brilliant breakthrough speech on racism Monday, one of the finest in American political history, the best that can be said of his speech on Iraq is that it's protection against the cut-and-run policies the Republicans will accuse him of. It's more like cut-and-paste.

TOM HAYDEN is the author of Ending the War in Iraq and The Tom Hayden Reader.