When it comes to predictions about Obama's Iraq policy, we can discount the supercilious Rush Limbaugh, who "predicted in a speech last week that Democrats will back down from their pledge to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq." But it's harder to ignore what Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, and James Jones are saying.
Let's start with Scowcroft. The ultimate Republican realist, who distinguished himself in 2002 by writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying bluntly that the United States should not attack Iraq, has had Obama's ear on national security matters for a while now. In a speech at the end of October, Scowcroft laid down a marker on Iraq, supporting limited troop withdrawals but urging caution -- exactly the sort of caution that will be urged on Obama from Gates and the generals:
Progress is being made. But it's a very fragile process. ... And it's getting to that point now that I think it is reversible, and so I think while the U.S. can probably begin to reduce some troops as the security situation improves, we have to be very careful about pulling out before we have a situation there that is clearly able to be sustained by the local system. And therefore, I would caution against a withdrawal of the United States according to a calendar, rather than according to the situation on the ground.
In today's Post, Gates is quoted by George Will along similar lines, suggesting that the United States will need to keep 40,000 troops in Iraq "for decades":
Regarding Iraq, Gates is parsimonious with his confidence, noting that "the multisectarian democracy has not sunk very deep roots yet." He stresses, however, that there is bipartisan congressional support for "a long-term residual presence" of perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that the president-elect's recent statements have not precluded that. Such a presence "for decades" has, he says, followed major U.S. military operations since 1945, other than in Vietnam. And he says, "Look at how long Britain has had troops in Cyprus."
General Jones, who will be Obama's national security adviser, is reportedly well in tune with Gates and General Petraeus, the Centcom commander. He' s been generally cautious on Iraq, where the one important thing he's done is to run a commission charged with examining the Iraqi security forces in 2007, and which made some news by calling for the disbanding of the corrupt and death squad-infiltrated Iraqi police.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported, Jones hasn't been on the same page as Obama when it comes to Iraq:
Jones has separated himself from the Obama playbook on a few issues. In 2007, he warned that setting an arbitrary deadline for removing U.S. troops from Iraq, which would presumably include Obama's campaign call to remove combat units in 16 months, would be "against our national interest."
Appearing on "Meet the Press" with the late Tim Russert at the time of the commission's report, Jones suggested that the United States might be in Iraq for at least three to four years. Here's an excerpt:
MR. RUSSERT: General Jones, you're known as a straight shooter. Just separate all the garbage away for the American people. What should they be thinking about Iraq? That we're going to need to be there for three, four, five years in order to secure the country?
GEN. JONES: Well, I--it may be that it'll take that long a period of time in, in order to do that. But that doesn't mean that, that, that there'll be--the level of fighting will be, will be the same.
MR. RUSSERT: Or the level of troops.
GEN. JONES: Or the level of troops. We are still in the Balkans, for example. The Balkans are relatively peaceful. So we'll get to that point. Our point is that you can, you can accelerate that with political reconciliation. But the strategic interests of the United States in the region are very, very high.