In his victory speech in Texas Tuesday, Barack Obama promised to end the Iraq war in 2009, a new commitment that parallels recent opinion pieces in The Nation.
Prior to his Houston remarks, Obama’s previous position favored an American combat troop withdrawal over a sixteen-to-eighteen-month timeframe. He has been less specific on the number and mission of any advisers he would leave behind.
Ending the war in the first year of his potential presidency, therefore, is the strongest stand Obama has taken thus far, and one he will be questioned on sharply by the Republicans and the media. As Juan Cole noted last year, the Bush-Cheney team is preparing a “poison pill” of disorder and blame for any future President contemplating an Iraq troop withdrawal.
Did Obama mean it? Was it only rhetoric? Perhaps, but as Obama has said over and over lately, words make a difference. He may be asked to square his 2009 goal with his previous eighteen-month timetable. To avoid inconsistencies or missteps, he might claim that he will publicly declare in 2009 that he is ending the occupation but bringing the troops home on his longer timetable. Who knows? But these were words worth holding the candidate to. The astonishing thing is that antiwar sentiment among Obama’s base is running strongly enough to push the candidate forward to a stronger commitment. By comparison, in The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama wrote that “how quickly a complete withdrawal can be accomplished is a matter of imperfect judgment based on a series of best guesses.”
The Iraq war, and the so-called war on terrorism, are now guaranteed to loom large in the likely battle between Obama and John McCain. The American experience, first with Vietnam and now with Iraq, provides a strong reservoir of support for Obama’s skeptical position from 2002 until the present time. But McCain’s personal experience as a tough Navy pilot and prisoner of war makes him much more formidable than Hillary Clinton as a “national security” advocate against Obama. McCain’s remarks last night were focused entirely on Obama’s lack of experience in foreign affairs, and should be a wake-up call to the peace movement to become more engaged in the presidential election.
Obama faces two immediate tests aside from the primary contests ahead. First, sometime in April, General David Petraeus will be testifying in Washington that the conditions are improving in Iraq and that the United States must “stay the course.” Petraeus will be acting as a de facto surrogate for McCain in domestic politics. Obama will have to respond to the general’s serious claims without retreating from the commitment he has given to early withdrawal.