POLITICS
07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Faux Flip-Flop: He Hasn't Shifted On Iraq (At Least Not Yet)

This Sunday, I couldn't help but notice that a bit of a long con was being set up in advance of Senator Barack Obama's trip to Iraq.

Obama has recently announced his intent to visit Iraq to take stock in the conditions on the ground, and the GOP has already come up with a plan: when Obama returns from Iraq, the position he has taken on withdrawal for these many months of the Democratic primary - in which we extricate ourselves gradually and carefully in a sixteen month process - will be sold as a new idea, a tack toward the Bush/McCain policy of eternal war and a flip-flop on his current stand.

Apparently, this isn't simply an issue of my own personal paranoia, because this morning, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is echoing my concerns. Of course, the only people suggesting that Obama has ever called for an "immediate" withdrawal are McCain and his partisans in the media. Obama's plan has been rather clearly stated for some time, now: a gradual, 16-month withdrawal from Iraq. But for McCain, it's a matter of numbers. On June 3rd, Rassmussen Reports published the results of a survey that found that public support for withdrawal from Iraq, while in slight decline, was still quite solid:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 59% of Americans want the troops brought home from Iraq within a year. That's down three points from a month ago and is the lowest number calling for troops to come home since March. Looked at from a longer perspective, however, there has been little change in attitudes towards a troop withdrawal since tracking of this question began last August.

With that sort of support lining up against McCain's stated intention to prolong the war ad infinitum, it becomes clear that at some point, McCain's not going to build a winning coalition of voters unless he can win the votes of a certain number of people who don't, and won't, support him on Iraq. Convincing the public that Obama is not going to deliver on the withdrawal for which there is broad public support is one way McCain can offset these deficits.

Of course, there's an element to this that sounds daffy. Obama's been only too clear in his support for a phased withdrawal plan over the course of sixteen months. So how will it come to be that McCain's furtive, and fundamentally false, "flip-flop" spin supposed to get any traction? In all likelihood, it will gain momentum, and (God forbid) acceptance, the same way the Iraq War did - on the back of some spectacularly bad reporting.

And, arriving right on time is a fresh example: George Packer's recent piece for the New Yorker. Packer's perfectly aware that Obama's plan is to call for a 16-month gradual withdrawal - he notes this in the piece's second paragraph. And yet, Obama has an "Iraq Problem," and, in the offing, is a coming "recalibrat[ion of] his stance on Iraq." But check out the underpinnings of Packer's case: from nearly stem-to-stern, there are examples of assertions that are fundamentally incorrect. Beginning with this:

In February, 2007, when Barack Obama declared that he was running for President, violence in Iraq had reached apocalyptic levels, and he based his candidacy, in part, on a bold promise to begin a rapid withdrawal of American forces upon taking office. At the time, this pledge represented conventional thinking among Democrats and was guaranteed to play well with primary voters.

In actuality, Obama was not a "proponent of the rapid withdrawal of American forces" during much of 2007, and such proposals were not anywhere close to being the "conventional thinking among Democrats." In September of 2007, the New York Times took stock of the three Democratic frontrunners - Obama, Clinton, and Edwards - and found that Iraq withdrawal was far from their minds:

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, would keep troops in the region to intervene in an Iraqi genocide and be prepared for military action if violence spills into other countries. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would leave residual forces to fight terrorism and to stabilize the Kurdish region in the north. And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis.

Obama's "sixteen month" plan was enunciated by the candidate later, and represented a "move to the voters'" mindset. With that in mind, it's just weird that Packer believes that "In hindsight, it was a mistake--an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today--for Obama to offer such a specific timetable." But a sizable majority of the electorate - 59% - wants our forces withdrawn within a year! That means Obama's position isn't a mistake, it's prescience.

Why, then, does Packer seem to caution against it, and predict a change in tone from Obama on Iraq? He seems to be of the belief that Iraq is "stabilizing," a conclusion that you can only reach by ignoring a multitude of facts.

Packer: "The improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush's surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia's unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment."

But Packer ignores the fact that the reduction in violence was mainly accomplished by looking the other way as Iraq's neighborhoods underwent massive sectarian cleansing, a matter that remains largely unresolved and which has contributed to a large-scale refugee problem. Packer is also seemingly unaware that recent reports have indicated that "the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement against the US and the Iraqi government has regrouped and reorganized, and is effectively lashing out again." We'll talk about Moqtada al-Sadr's role in all this misinformation in a minute.

Packer: "The same pragmatism that prompted him last month to forgo public financing of his campaign will surely lead him, if he becomes President, to recalibrate his stance on Iraq. He doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, reënergize the Sunni insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia's recent losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state of collapse."

It is unclear how withdrawal from Iraq will cause any of these things to happen, seeing as how our presence in Iraq has had no bearing on these matters either. Al-Qaeda didn't operate in Iraq until we created an opportunity for them to do so. Even with that opportunity, they didn't do much of consequence with it - "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is, and remains, a puny and insignificant group of insurgents - "about 850 full-time fighters" that are considered "a microscopic terrorist organization." And as for al Sadr's "recent losses to the Iraqi Army," all I can say is that the next time that happens will be the first time. If the Sadrist uprising eariler this year demonstrated anything, it was that al-Maliki's security forces were nowhere near ready for prime-time. The U.S. had to ride to their rescue and salvage the situation, and the end result of the cease-fire was "Advantage: Sadr" all the way.

And what about the potential "collapse" of the Iraqi government? Well, recent Congressional testimony from two members of that Iraqi government before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight told a different story: that the most sizable obstacle to a unified government was...the U.S. occupation:

A letter signed by 31 Iraqi parliamentarians from across Iraq's sectarian spectrum and presented to Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, called the deal "unconstitutional and illegal." The letter's signatories included Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, who appear to be following Iraqi public opinion. A joint BBC-ABC News poll from September 2007 found nearly 50 percent of Iraqis favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, with barely 30 percent saying the U.S. should remain "until security is restored."

"[W]e wish to inform you that the majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq, in accordance with a declared timetable and without leaving behind any military bases, soldiers or hired fighters," the letter stated. It represents the first attempt at formal legislature-to-legislature communications, undercutting the pro-occupation executives in both Washington and Baghdad.

What seems clear is that where Iraq is in decline, the decline is happening in spite of and because of our continued presence. Where there is a coalition of Iraqis who want to build a maintainable, unified center, our occupation is held out as the chief impediment to their efforts. And arguments that our withdrawal will only facilitate a greater humanitarian disaster fail to note that great humanitarian disasters have already occurred with our forces standing guard anyway. All of the trends indicate that a gradual withdrawal is the sensible strategy (and really, if the picture were as rosy as Packer believes it to be, wouldn't that go even further in suggesting that it was time for us to leave?). When you add the growing and urgent need in Afghanistan, as well as the gathering threat from al Qaeda and the reconstituted Taliban in that region, withdrawal-as-a-desired-outcome becomes withdrawal-as-a-desperately-necessary outcome.

As Obama's progressed from the pre-primary period to today, his position on Iraq withdrawal has resolutely trended in the right direction. It is where the mind of the mainstream electorate currently resides and it is the best strategy for extricating ourselves from Iraq and returning to the vital mission of rooting out and eliminating actual terrorists. Should Obama return from Iraq a changed man, aligning himself with McCain's conclusions, then, without a doubt, he will and should face a revolt from the electorate. If, however, his trip does nothing but confirm the conclusions he's already reached, the press should be on their guard and be prepared to push back if McCain begins spinning his consistent position as a reversal or a flip-flop. Packer notes that "a candidate who seems heedless of progress in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism." I'd counter Packer by noting that a reporter who seems heedless of the facts in Iraq will leave us all vulnerable to defeat.