Barack Obama’s July 3 statement that he would “continue to refine” his policy on Iraq based on a “thorough assessment” of conditions on the ground and more information from military commanders prompted howls of protest (and a few cheers) from across the political spectrum. Antiwar activists worried that he was softening his earlier commitment to end the Iraq War on a fixed timetable; Republicans accused him of flip-flopping. Meanwhile, a rising chorus of establishment voices applauded Obama’s comment as a step toward a “reasonable position” based on an open-ended policy of “conditional engagement.” Faced with such obsessive parsing of his remark–based on the premise that Obama had shifted course–the candidate was forced to the podium (and the New York Times op-ed page) to clarify.
“I have said throughout this campaign that this war was ill-conceived, that it was a strategic blunder and that it needs to come to an end,” Obama emphasized, while reiterating his support for a sixteen-month timeline for the withdrawal of combat troops, contingent on the US measure of security and stability in Iraq. “That position has not changed,” he maintained.
Obama is right about the consistency of his position, and for progressives, therein lies both the promise and the limitations of what an Obama presidency might mean for the Iraq occupation.
In 2002, as the majority of Democrats in the Senate voted to authorize the Iraq War, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, warned against “a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” He correctly diagnosed the enormous toll the war would have on America’s ability to address problems at home and abroad, and he later became one of the first national leaders to call for a phased withdrawal of troops. More than any other stance, it was this clearheaded rejection of the muddled calculations of the inside-the-Beltway crowd that set Obama apart from his major rivals for the Democratic nomination. More than any other candidate, he seemed to speak for the majority of Americans who opposed the futile sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives for no other reason than to avoid the perception of US surrender. So when candidate Obama pledges to give the military a new mission–to end the war–on his first day in office, is a commitment to change backed by a credible and courageous record as a critic of the war.
That said, Obama’s Iraq plan has always left the door open for what could become an “occupation of undetermined length” under a Democratic President. Even as he rejects permanent US military bases in Iraq, Obama has said that no timetable should be “overly rigid.” He has indicated that he would “work with our military commanders” to determine a withdrawal plan. He has supported the presence of residual troops, which could number as many as 80,000, to guard a militarized embassy, combat terrorism and provide training and assistance to the Iraqi government.
These positions, which he echoed in his Iraq speech on July 15, are not new, but they do raise the concern that Obama’s pledge to end the war on a timetable could become subordinated to a shifting landscape of worst-case scenarios that impose new and unachievable conditions for withdrawal. Moreover, it is troubling that his plan does not ban the use of private military contractors. And his call for a strategic redeployment of US troops to Afghanistan and Pakistan, escalating the US military presence there–instead of emphasizing the need to redirect our foreign policy away from occupying Muslim lands and toward resolute diplomacy to deal with threats and crises–raises serious questions about the foreign policy path he would pursue as president.