There’s no doubt that the financial crisis, job insecurity, and fundamental economic worries are the No. 1 issue in Tuesday’s vote. But that raises a critical question: If Barack Obama is elected, will he have an antiwar mandate?
The answer isn’t clear.
In 2006, when Democrats reconquered the House and Senate, the election was widely seen as a referendum on the failing war in Iraq. Many Democrats, including those who had previously been supporters of the war, felt tremendous pressure from that public expression of antiwar sentiment, even if the Democratic majority in Congress was either unable either to block the so-called surge or to pass legislation halting the war. Their inability to do so was largely the result of President Bush’s veto powers and the Senate minority’s ability to filibuster defense spending bills and other measures.
If Obama wins, he will face enormous pressure to abandon his pledge to stop the war in Iraq. That pressure will come from some within his own circle of advisers, many of whom saw Obama’s antiwar stance as good politics but bad policy. It will come from hawkish Democrats outside Obama’s circle, from those elbowing their way to get in, typified by Richard Holbrooke, who found himself shut out of Obamaland after he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. It may come from more hawkish Democrats close to Senator Biden, who voted for the Iraq war in 2002. It will certainly come from conservatives, neoconservatives, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. It will come from thinktanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for a New American Security, which have close ties both to Obama and to the Democratic establishment.
And most of all, the pressure on Obama will come from the US military and General Petraeus, who won’t look kindly on an incoming administration that wants to change course. Early in his administration, Obama is going to have to sit down, face to face, with Petraeus — a politically savvy general who, it is rumored, is thinking about running for office himself — and say something like this:
“General Petraeus, I value your service to our country. But under our system, I am the commander-in-chief. I’m the boss, not you. We’re getting out of Iraq, and we’re doing it quickly. I want a plan on my desk in 24 hours for the withdrawal of at least one to two brigades per month, and I want the withdrawal completed by the summer of 2010 at the latest. If we can do it more quickly, tell me. Anyone who doesn’t like this new policy, well, there’s the door.”
And he’ll have to look around the room, one by one, at the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Ray Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq, and others.
Each one of them will know the pressure that Obama will be under from hawks and right-wingers. The constitution gives Obama the power to order them to carry out the new policy, whether they like it or not — and they won’t like it. But Obama will be a lot stronger if he goes into that room with a mandate from the Nov. 4 election.
Problem is, Iraq has receded so far in the public’s consciousness that it isn’t entirely clear what next Tuesday’s vote will mean for Iraq.
Certainly, Obama catapulted over Hillary Clinton in the primaries because he mobilized antiwar voters against her, based on his 2002 speech opposing the war and Clinton’s vote, in October, 2002, for it. Since then, however, the war has become less and less prominent, especially during the general election campaign. During the debates between Obama and John McCain, it hardly came up, although Obama did slam McCain for his poor judgment in supporting the war in 2003. Still, Obama did not aggressively put forward his plan to get out of Iraq during the debates, and he was oddly defensive whenever McCain challenged him over the “surge.” Obama could have said that the surge was a fiasco and that Iraq is poised to explode in renewed civil war because there is no political agreement among Iraq’s various armed factions.. He could have said:
“Senator McCain, in 2006 I called for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and so did General Casey and General Abizaid, who were commanding our troops. And so did the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Had we done so, the war would be over now, and American troops would have long been home. But we didn’t. Instead, President Bush listened to you, and to the neocons, and two years later we are still stuck in Iraq.”
He could have said that, but he didn’t.
It’s true that, among voters, Obama is widely seen as the antiwar candidate. In the New York Times, for instance, there is a poll today that asks: “Would the candidate’s policies lead to greater US military involvement in Iraq, less US military involvement, or wouldn’t they have any effect on US military involvement?” According to those polled, 80 percent said that Obama would order “less US military involvement” and only 7 percent answered that he would order “more.” In contrast, only 18 percent responded “less” for McCain and 56 percent said McCain would order “more US military involvement.”
Still, polls across the board have shown that Iraq has dropped for fourth, fifth, or even lower among things that voters are concerned about in 2008. The Baltimore Sun reports on one such result, but there are many:
“According to a Gallup poll last December, one in three Americans surveyed felt that the war in Iraq was the most important issue facing the country, more than selected the economy and health care combined. But a Pew Research Center survey this month indicated that only one in 10 still say that Iraq is the most pressing issue. … Both campaigns have moved on to other issues.”
That will make it hard, but not impossible, for Obama to argue that he has a mandate to end the war on Nov. 5.
Obama hasn’t helped his case by downplaying his opposition to war. He hasn’t helped by refusing to say much about his plans for Iraq besides the withdrawal, including what a residual force might look like, i.e., how many troops might remain in Iraq after the withdrawal of the US combat brigades, and what their mission might be. (During the summer, some advisers to Obama wanted to draw a starker contrast with McCain over Iraq, and some wanted to muddy the differences. The mud advocates seem to have prevailed.) And Obama hasn’t made his mandate stronger by adopting hawkish views on other, non-Iraq related issues: he supports a bigger military; he supports an expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia; he supports more troops for Afghanistan; he has called for cross-border raids into Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda officials; and, of course, he has hewed closely to orthodoxy in support of Israel.
In his most recent speech, yesterday in Sarasota, Florida, Obama didn’t mention at all his plan to end the war in Iraq. He said nothing — yes, nothing — about withdrawing US forces. Here is the full text of what he said about Iraq in that speech:
When it comes to keeping this country safe, we don’t have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq. It’s time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus. As President, I will end this war by asking the Iraqi government to step up, and I will finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. I will never hesitate to defend this nation. From day one of this campaign, I have made clear that we will increase our ground troops and our investments in the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Watching our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines fight in Iraq and Afghanistan has only deepened my commitment to invest in 21st century technologies so that our men and women have the best training and equipment when they deploy into combat and the care and benefits they have earned when they come home.
I won’t stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy – especially now. The cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq, means that Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending on things we don’t need.
Let’s analyze that.
First, he doesn’t reiterate that he is pulling US forces out. Instead, he appears to say that the key is to get Iraq to pay for the war, to get the Iraqis to use their surplus. That may appeal to budget-conscious US voters, but — especially with the price of oil dropping fast — Iraq, which is a poor, Third World nation with a devastated economy, isn’t going to pay for the war.
Second, he says that he wants “the Iraqi government to step up,” meaning, presumably, to fight its own war. That, of course, is exactly what President Bush can been saying, namely, that the US will “stand down” when the Iraqis “stand up.” Problem is, the Iraqis need to be handed an unconditional timetable that doesn’t depend on what they do or don’t do. Iraq doesn’t need President Obama to “asking” it to step up.
Third, and most troubling, Obama says that Americans will have to tighten their belts because of the “cost of the war in Iraq.” Doesn’t that mean that the war will continue?