The battle for Barack Obama’s mind on the issue of getting out of Iraqunfolded in public yesterday, as two members of his Iraq advisory taskforce presented conflicting versions of what to do about the BushAdministration’s nation-wrecking program in that country.
The scene was the second annual meeting of the Center for a New AmericanSecurity, a center-right Democratic think tank whose luminaries includeMadeleine Albright and William Perry, secretaries of state and defenseunder Bill Clinton, and a host of other foreign policy wonks.
The two speakers were Colin Kahl, who chairs the task force and whoworks at CNAS, and Brian Katulis, a member of Obama’s task force and athinker-in-residence at the Center for American Progress. Neither Kahlnor Katulis was speaking for Obama, but the stark conflict in theirviews says something important about the differing opinions Obama may begetting from inside his team.
Kahl is one of the authors of CNAS’ new report, “Shaping the IraqInheritance,” which proposes a policy called “conditional engagement”for Iraq that would leave a large contingent of American forces in Iraqfor several years, and which would make America’s presence in Iraqcontingent on political progress in Iraq toward reconciliation among thecountry’s ethnic and sectarian groups and parties. Katulis is an authorof CAP’s Iraq plan, “Strategic Reset,” and other studies that propose towithdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, except for a small force to protectthe American embassy. Katulis’ CAP plan also suggests a halt in the U.S.training of Iraqi government forces, while Kahl and CNAS want tocontinue to train the Iraqi security forces long after U.S. combatforces are withdrawn.
Appearing together on a panel at CNAS yesterday, Kahl and Katulispresented a stark contrast.
Kahl criticized Katulis’ plan, implicitly, by putting it in a categoryhe calls “unconditional disengagement.” In his paper, Kahl describesthat as a “pledge to unconditionally disengage from Iraq by withdrawingall troops on a fixed, unilateral timetable.” His plan, “conditionalengagement,” would “negotiate a time horizon for U.S. redeployment as ameans of pushing Iraqi leaders toward accommodation and galvanizingregional efforts to stabilize Iraq.” In its reports, CNAS has proposedleaving several tens of thousands of American forces in Iraq. Inyesterday’s presentation, Kahl showed a slide that defines the U.S.military mission in Iraq, after combat forces are withdrawn, to include”counter-terrorism, force protection, train, advise and provide criticalenablers for the [Iraqi security forces].” The withdrawal of theseforces is “to be determined, based on conditions.”
Katulis, responding to Kahl, said that what CNAS is proposing “soundsvery close to what the Bush Administration is doing,” adding that therewas “not a real strong difference” between Kahl’s plan and the WhiteHouse’s plan.
Also on the panel was General (ret.) Jack Keane, a crusty old militaryman who seemed oblivious to the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq. “We cantalk about winning in Iraq,” said Keane. “I am convinced we will win inIraq.”
Keane cavalierly dismissed the military importance of the two biggestarmed movements in Iraq that might oppose both the United States andMaliki’s regime: the Mahdi Army and the Sons of Iraq.
He said that Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric whose Mahdi Army is apowerful force in Baghdad and Iraq’s south, is weakening. “Sadr has beenmarginalized politically by [Prime Minister] Maliki,” he said, eventhough few Iraq experts would be winning to dismiss Sadr as aplayer–especially since Sadr is leading the nationalist opposition tothe Bush Administration’s plan to establish a treaty formalizing theU.S. occupation of Iraq this summer.
And Keane pooh-poohed the U.S.-funded Awakening or “Sons of Iraq”movement, which is eighty percent Sunni. “We’re not going to bring90,000 of those hoods into the Iraqi security forces,” he said. Manyanalysts are lambasting Maliki for refusing to incorporate the Sunni-ledforces into the government army and police, but Keane dismissed thosewho are “wringing their hands about what to do” with the Sons of Iraq.”It’s not a big deal,” he shrugged. To those who say that many of thosemilitiamen would go back into armed opposition to the Maliki governmentif a deal isn’t struck, Keane said flatly: “They’re not going to go backand organize themselves into insurgent groups.”