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Barack in Iraq

As a candidate for president in 1968, Richard Nixon ran on what is (apocryphally) remembered as a "secret plan to end the war" in Vietnam. We now know, of course, that Nixon had no such intention. Today, Barack Obama's campaign is largely based around a promise to "end the war" in Iraq by withdrawing troops within 16 months.

But some Washington foreign policy mandarins insist this isn't possible--that a total U.S. withdrawal isn't achievable and Obama knows it. That Obama, like Nixon, in fact has a secret plan not to end the war. "The classic storyline is that everyone wants to get out, but we're not going to get out, and everyone's going to be disappointed," says Derek Chollet, a former foreign policy adviser to John Edwards. Or, at least, that Obama's speeches overstate the feasibility of a near-term Iraq exit. "Close to a pipe dream," says the Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb. "I regard that as campaign rhetoric rather than serious policy." "Wildly unrealistic campaign rhetoric," scoffs The Washington Post editorial page.

Not helping matters for Obama was his now-departed foreign policy adviser Samantha Power's recent concession that his withdrawal plan amounted to a "best- case scenario" subject to substantial revision when he takes office. Most recently came a provocative report in The New York Sun that the leader of the Obama campaign's working group on Iraq had authored a think-tank paper proposing to leave a whopping 60,000-80,000 American troops in Iraq through 2010. Yes, that pop you just heard was Dennis Kucinich's head exploding.

The truth is Obama has no secret plan for Iraq. Interviews with nearly two dozen foreign policy and military experts, as well as Obama's campaign advisers, and a close review of Obama's own statements on Iraq, suggest something more nuanced. What he is offering is a basic vision of withdrawal with muddy particulars, one his advisers are still formulating and one that, if he is elected, is destined to meet an even muddier reality on the ground. Obama has set a clear direction for U.S. policy in Iraq: He wants us out of Iraq; but he's not willing to do it at any cost--even if it means dashing the hopes of some of his more fervent and naïve supporters. And, when it comes to Iraq, whatever the merits of Obama's withdrawal plan may be, "Yes, We Can" might ultimately yield to "No, we can't."

Superficially, Obama's Iraq rhetoric makes his plan seem rather simpler than it is. His website states that Obama "will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq ... and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months" (italics added). On the campaign trail, he repeatedly promises to "end this war and bring our troops home." When I explained to one aide that I was examining Obama's Iraq plan, he asked why I didn't simply write a story saying that Obama will withdraw all our troops from Iraq.

This surface-level simplicity, however, is the product of a long, slow evolution. Committed antiwar activists say Obama was too slow to call for a U.S. exit--something he didn't do until 2006. "We never had high expectations in regards to Senator Obama," says Tim Carpenter, a leading antiwar agitator with the lefty group Progressive Democrats of America.

Indeed, for more than two years after the 2003 invasion, Obama emphasized America's moral and strategic obligations in Iraq. "The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster," he told reporters in July 2004. "It would dishonor the 900-plus men and women who have already died. ... It would be a betrayal of the promise that we made to the Iraqi people, and it would be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective."

Even when Obama gave his first major speech calling for withdrawal, in November 2006, he didn't offer the kind of fixed timeline he proposes now. His plan also included a substantial caveat:

I am not suggesting that this timetable be overly rigid. ... The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels. ... In such a scenario, it is conceivable that a significantly reduced U.S. force might remain in Iraq for a more extended period of time.

Obama doesn't talk about a temporary suspension anymore. But the fine print of his plan is filled with caveats, ambiguities, and wiggle room--leaving open the possibility of maintaining anything from a token troop contingent by late 2010 all the way to a major force numbering many tens of thousands of American soldiers.

Obama carves out substantial wiggle room in the phrase "combat brigades," a term of art that describes frontline troops who enforce security and do regular battle with militias and insurgents. But there are many other things troops can do, and Obama concedes that he would leave so-called "residual forces" in Iraq-- although his campaign won't provide an on-the-record estimate. "Barack has been very clear that he would work with the commanders on the ground, with military planners, to determine what the appropriate size is," says one policy aide. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that a "senior adviser" said Obama was "comfortable" with a "long-term" troop presence of five brigades, or roughly 35,000 troops, in Iraq. And, when he questioned Iraqi commander David Petraeus at a hearing in Washington in early April, Obama asked the general, "If we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30, 000, would we consider that a success?"

Obama is clear about two categories of U.S. troops he believes must remain in Iraq even after the combat brigades go. One is the force that would guard the U.S. Embassy to prevent a larger-scale version of the Iranian hostage crisis. (Obama downplays this, saying that "we do it in France, we do it in Great Britain.") This contingent will likely be at least several thousand strong. Obama has also vowed to create a counterterrorism "strike force" that could attack Al Qaeda strongholds that spring up after the United States departs Iraq. This force would likely comprise several thousand more troops (speculation has run as high as 20,000). Obama has said those soldiers might be based in a neighboring country like Kuwait. But he has hedged on this question, and some analysts doubt the practicality of quickly blasting terrorist confabs from hundreds of miles away. Still, if his plan stopped there--and especially if his counterterrorism troops really were based elsewhere--Obama would come about as close as possible to completely leaving Iraq.

It's worth pausing to be clear about the many benefits Obama argues that near-complete withdrawal, however difficult it may be, would deliver. The United States might assume more strategic risk in Iraq specifically, but it would reduce its global strategic risk by freeing up resources and military might to deal with other problems, like stabilizing Afghanistan and chasing Al Qaeda. Foreign resentment toward the United States would likely subside, war spending could be turned into foreign aid, and, perhaps most important, showing Iraq we are serious about leaving could force its leaders to get serious about reconciliation. "Leaving is the greatest pressure that we have to bring to bear, " says Obama's foreign policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes.

The trouble is that Obama's ambitious withdrawal schedule assumes the many things that could go horribly wrong won't go wrong. And, even among foreign policy and military strategy experts sympathetic to withdrawal, there exists a consensus that pulling out isn't as easy as Obama's plan implies. "There's no way in which events on the ground won't have some impact on any withdrawal schedule. There's just no way," says Rand Beers, a former Clinton national security adviser and president of the center-left National Security Network. "You cannot say we're going to be out by such-and-such a date," says former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton, a co-chairman of the 2006 Iraq Study Group who has endorsed Obama. In other words, it's not hard to imagine scenarios where troop levels remain stubbornly high.

One is the murky situation in which withdrawal left a bloody froth of violence in its wake. Obama acknowledges this likelihood and says he can tolerate some bloodshed as a consequence of his policy--in part, he argues, because "there's going to be more violence over the long haul by us not changing the course." His advisers also say he would likely remove troops from more stable areas first, saving violence-prone hotspots for later. But tolerating a wave of violence--sure to be televised around the globe--might be difficult in practice. "If violence escalates, that's going to create a lot of very bad visuals," says Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Others say Americans have run out of patience with policing Iraqi infighting. But Obama offers a significant exception: genocide. Obama frequently says genocide prevention should be a higher U.S. priority, and concedes it could be a course-changer in Iraq. "It is conceivable," Obama told The New York Times, "that there comes a point where things descend into the mayhem that shocks the conscience as we say to ourselves, this is not acceptable, any more than what happened in Darfur is not acceptable." The fine print of Obama's plan even allows for providing "armed escorts" to fearful Iraqis wanting to relocate to safer areas, which would be an unprecedented operation of impossible-to etermine scope. If major violence unfolds in Iraq, then, we can expect a heated debate about whether or not it qualifies as "genocide." (Confusingly, however, Obama told the Associated Press last year that military force alone cannot stop genocide, noting that, "if that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now," and "we would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan"--suggesting that Obama's position here is still a work in progress.)

Similarly hazy is whether and under what circumstances Obama would choose to continue training Iraqi security forces. Stepped-up training was a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group. Yet Obama says he would make continued training contingent on national political reconciliation--enough to assure him that the United States wouldn't simply be professionalizing sectarian militias. Once again, Obama has not been clear about his criteria for making these determinations. But a loose interpretation would provide an escape clause to leave behind a large contingent of trainers and the troops needed to protect them. The Iraq Study Group suggested 20,000. With U.S. combat brigades withdrawn, however, protecting trainers would demand more troops. The alternative, which few outside the Obama orbit find plausible, is that Obama would walk away from an unreconciled Iraq altogether, regardless of its ability to secure and defend itself. There's just no knowing for sure. Obama will, in effect, cross that bridge when he comes to it. As he recently explained to Newsweek: "I'd be in a constant process of evaluating conditions on the ground."

A campaign platform can only offer so much granular detail, of course. And how Obama's plan unfolds will hinge largely on the unknowable question of Iraq's condition come January. But much will also depend on the debate within his administration among senior policymakers once they have real strategic--not just political--responsibilities on their shoulders.

While in broad agreement on the need for a drawdown, Obama's inner circle of foreign policy advisers is still debating the specifics of a future Iraq policy. This circle includes Clinton administration veterans Tony Lake, Susan Rice, and Greg Craig; Denis McDonough, former foreign policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle; speechwriter Rhodes, a former aide to Lee Hamilton; former Pentagon counterinsurgency expert Sarah Sewell; and military men like former Clinton Navy secretary Richard Danzig, former Air Force officer Scott Gration, and former Air Force general Merrill McPeak. The personal views on Iraq of all these people isn't known, but this is not a homogenous or doctrinaire bunch. Danzig, a potential Obama defense secretary, recently told The Washington Post that he personally supports setting a negotiable exit date based on political progress. Rhodes's mentor, Hamilton, opposes a fixed timetable. Lake, who opposed the war from the start, expressed concern about the consequences of withdrawal in a February 2004 op-ed. "[T]o walk away [from Iraq], leaving chaos, would be a strategic and moral disaster," he wrote.

Obama also draws advice from an outer ring of Iraq-specific advisers who are effectively auditioning to become the State Department and Pentagon policymakers in his administration. Closest to the Obama camp are the determined withdrawal advocates at the Center for American Progress (CAP), which is home to McDonough, as well as Iraq specialists and campaign advisers Larry Korb and Brian Katulis. Korb and Katulis co-authored CAP's signature Iraq plan, which they call "strategic reset" and which calls for a swift exit accompanied by intensified diplomacy and a token U.S. force of perhaps 10,000 in the Kurdish north. Strategic reset also proposes to cancel training and funding for Iraqi forces unless some national political reconciliation is reached. (That approach diverts from some mainstream foreign policy thinking, including the Iraq Study Group, which emphasized the importance of training Iraqi forces.) "Strategic reset" ultimately looks a lot like the Obama plan.

But Obama also draws expertise from a more centrist Washington policy shop, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which has issued a plan envisioning up to 60,000 troops in Iraq for several years, though with an increased training role. Danzig is a CNAS board member, and its fellows include Colin Kahl, who leads Obama's Iraq working group. (The group is a semi-formal assemblage of ten to twelve experts who distill information and assist with tasks like debate preparation, Kahl says, rather than make policy.) Kahl is a proponent of the middle-ground concept of "conditional engagement," which incentivizes and rewards the political progress by Iraqi leaders with a larger U.S. troop presence to help them provide security.

Obama has also said repeatedly that he would consult with "commanders on the ground" to set his strategy. Right now, that doesn't seem entirely consistent with his withdrawal plan. "If, indeed, a President Obama were to listen to his ground commanders, right now as the situation stands, without dramatic change, they would not be recommending withdrawal," the veteran Time Iraq correspondent Michael Ware explained on CNN last month, echoing a common view. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen told reporters last month that a precipitous withdrawal "would concern me greatly." (Mullen's two-year term doesn't expire until August 2009.) And, while the pro-surge U.S. commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, has been nominated to another position, some think his likely replacement--Army Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno--may be just as invested in pursuing "victory" in Iraq.*

George W. Bush has demonstrated that a president can cherry-pick advice from his generals; and Obama has recently explained that he will rely on military chiefs for tactics, not strategy. But it's clear that the specific shape of an Obama withdrawal plan will be subject to a policy debate both at the Pentagon and within his advisory circle--one that has yet to fully play out. "The discussion is, how can we best leverage our phased redeployment from Iraq to push them in a direction we want them to go?" says Kahl. "I would think that's the discussion people would want the advisers around a candidate to have."

One trouble, of course, with Obama's more subtle options for leaving some troops in Iraq is the enormous political pressure that he will feel to follow through on his generally unsubtle campaign promises on withdrawal. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 65 percent of Americans want to see the United States out of Iraq within a year. At least that many people would likely expect Obama to follow through on his 16-month pledge. Failure to do so could be a political disaster.

"Campaigns mean something," says Bill Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy adviser who opposed the war. "To enter office on one understanding and then begin your presidency by violating that understanding is a prescription for a failed presidency. Period." And Obama would face an already established antiwar apparatus, complete with a well-funded activist base, not to mention a Democratic Congress still determined to deliver on its promises of ending the war.

It may be that, if Obama can remove U.S. troops from frontline combat duties, take the "American face" off the occupation, and dramatically reduce casualties, that will be enough to satisfy the antiwar base and buy him more policy flexibility. But, for many of the war's leading critics, even leaving training forces in Iraq--not to mention tens of thousands of private security contractors, about whom Obama says virtually nothing--is intolerable. "This myth that we have soldiers on the ground that we don't call combat forces, expose them to all the dangers on the ground--minus the reinforcements they currently have--is absurd," says Tom Andrews of the antiwar coalition Win Without War. "From a practical point of view, and a political point of view, I don't think there's much of an option but to cut bait and go. Certainly, anything short of that is not going to be acceptable to me and people in our coalition." (John Edwards has called a training mission "continuing the occupation of Iraq.")

Still, some advisers say the predictions that Obama won't be able to fulfill his campaign pledge of withdrawal are the creation of Iraq hawks invested in the war's success. "I may be in the minority, but I actually think [full withdrawal] is likely what's going to happen," says one antiwar think-tanker with ties to the Obama campaign. "The conventional wisdom is that, once they get into power for whatever reason, they will change and adopt that strategy. I reject that conventional wisdom, because I think it is based on the proposition that we don't have an alternative to victory. We do, and it's called losing. We have been losing for a very long time."

This may be true. But "losing," even if it's not your fault, is not how you want to begin your presidency. Especially with conservatives poised to redefine the Iraq debate. "The argument will be that, under the Bush–Petraeus policy, violence was down and things were under control," says Stephen Biddle. "Then the Democrats came in, and things went to hell in a handbasket. If things getting worse is the apparent consequence of a policy choice, I think there will be a partisan price to pay."

Finally, it's worth considering the potential challenges of a rapid exit. "We have moved an iron and concrete Mount Everest to Iraq since 2003. Heavy stuff that cannot be flown out, that has to be driven by truck," says Biddle. Ten thousand truck trips, some estimate. There are also 1,900 tanks and armored vehicles, 43,000 trucks, plus 700 aircraft in Iraq.

And it won't be easy getting it all out. Most materiel would travel down Route Tampa, an asphalt highway that makes a conveniently narrow target for insurgents, who already bomb the route regularly. Some military planners anxiously recall the way the Red Army battled home from Afghanistan in 1988 and 1989 through mujahedin rocket ambushes at perilous choke points. The exit of 120,000 Soviet troops cost 523 lives. "Who wants to be the last to die for a withdrawal?" asks Biddle.

But who wants to be the last to die for a failed occupation, either? Such are the gruesome choices that a president Obama will face, regardless of whether his euphoric supporters realize it yet.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.


*This section was updated online after Ray Odierno was announced as David Petraeus' replacement (4/24/08).