Refining Obama’s Iraq Policy

It is getting to the point where it appears that some in the media are going out of their way to try to fabricate examples of Obama changing his position. I suspect that this is because lazy journalists find it easier to write a story claiming a politician has flip-flopped as opposed to really discussing their position. Perhaps it is simply that they never understood his views in the first place. The latest example is on Obama’s position on the war.

The Politico begins a misleading story by writing, “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Thursday backed off his firm promise to withdraw combat forces from Iraq immediately and instead said he could ‘refine’ his plan after his trip to Baghdad later this month.” The Caucus does a better job of quoting Obama’s statements and instead of characterizing this as backing away from a promise says, “many of the nuances that have long been tucked into Mr. Obama’s policy have begun to emerge.”

For those who have paid attention to the details of Obama’s position, as opposed to stopping after the first sound bites, nothing has changed. I discussed the same topic back in March when Samantha Power made it clear that the sixteen month time table was not written in stone, Power also said:

You can’t make a commitment in whatever month we’re in now, in March of 2008, about what circumstances are gonna be like in Jan. 2009. We can’t even tell what Bush is up to in terms of troop pauses and so forth. He will of course not rely upon some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or as a U.S. senator. He will rely upon a plan, an operational plan that he pulls together, in consultation with people who are on the ground, to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president.

For those who are still fighting the primary battles, I also noted in the same post that the Clinton camp had said essentially the same thing–at least on some days as later Clinton in this post is an example of Clinton also saying the opposite. No politician running in the winter and spring of 2008 could say with certainty the exact steps they would take in 2009 as this would depend upon conditions on the ground at the time. Any settlement will also require diplomacy with Iraq and their neighbors, making it impossible to state an exact plan before taking office.

The interview I quoted above was only one example of this being discussed by the Obama campaign. Steve Benen presents another example:

Some are interpreting these comments as either a reversal or evidence of a looming reversal. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if you’d told me that these exact same remarks came from Obama in February, I’d believe you.

As the Democratic primary process unfolded, the Clinton campaign tried to get out in front of this issue by saying that she was committed to her withdrawal plan — no matter what. When Clinton’s communications director was pressed on whether Clinton would proceed with a withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground, he said, “Yes.”

Obama was never actually willing to go there, and as far as I can tell, has always given himself some flexibility on troop withdrawal. Here’s a report from four months ago:

“Susan Rice, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, told reporters a short time ago during another conference call that it is “striking” if Clinton’s troop withdrawal plan would not be subject to some judgment about conditions at the time. Obama, Rice said, is committed to withdrawing “one to two brigades a month,” but also to going slower if that pace would threaten the safety of U.S. personnel.”

That, in a nutshell, is what Obama said today, too. In fact, as far back as March, Samantha Power argued that the next president would have to consider conditions on the ground when implementing a withdrawal plan. Indeed, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard Obama say that he wants to be as careful getting out as Bush was reckless in going in.

In terms of “refining” his policy, that, too, is consistent with Obama’s general approach — he crafted a withdrawal policy nearly two years ago. Of course it’s going to be refined based on changing conditions.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent raises a good point about the context:

“These strike me as less a signal of a coming change in his position on withdrawal and more like a combined effort to defuse the charge that he’ll withdraw recklessly and to preserve flexibility as commander in chief.”

Quite right. The McCain campaign wants desperately to argue that Obama supports an immediate, “precipitous” withdrawal, that would disregard conditions and/or the wishes of commanders. Given this, Obama’s point is pretty straightforward — he wants to give the Pentagon a new mission (getting out safely), based on a flexible timetable. Nothing he said today changes that formulation at all. I understand concerns about Obama “moving to the middle,” but is remarks in Fargo aren’t evidence of a shift.

While the Clinton campaign had taken both sides on the question as to whether the withdrawal plans were firm regardless of the conditions, Obama has been consistent in placing qualifications based upon the situation once he takes office.

There are at least two key differences between Obama and McCain on the war. Obama realized going to war n Iraq was a mistake from the beginning while McCain was in favor of the war. Obama realizes that our national interests, as well as the interests of those in the region, are best served by a policy aimed at getting out of Iraq while John McCain is willing to remain for one hundred years. The media is resorting to trivialities in making an issue over whether Obama will get out in exactly sixteen months, along with being incorrect if they claim that this represents a change in his position.

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  1. 1
    Jerry says:

    Rove is Happening Again!
    Just as Davis is replaced by elevating senior strategist Steve Schmidt to head day-to-day operations, this happens. No coincidence. People, here’s how it works, step by step:
    1. Schmidt decides what topic will hurt Obama the most right now. Obama’s focusing on patriotism? So shift slightly to military in Iran and apply a small push (Jujitsu 101).
    2. The push: call a few friends. Best if they’re high up (not reporters – the story then becomes what you’re doing). No, best if your friends are people who tell reporters what story to pursue: “I’ve heard that Obama’s about to flip-flop on Iran. This is HUGE! Be sure you GET the story!”
    3. Sit back and watch the fun. Primed by Schmidt, the press asks questions designed to pry this nascent flip-flop loose, then interprets any response to please their bosses.
    4. Have  your candidate (McCain if you’re Schmidt) ready with “I would never flip-flop. You can trust me. I’m steady Freddy when it comes to Iraq.”
    5. When Obama inevitably attempts to set the record straight, hit him again: “See? He’s flopping back on his flip! This guy will say anything.”
    6. Go have a few beers; democracy’s been saved yet again. Rove’s third term is in the bag. You might even listen to Mike Malloy rip Obama a new one. What a high!
    7. Next day, do it all over again.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is a great plan on their part. If Obama sticks with the position he has advocated all along, they call him a flip-flopper. The only way Obama can escape being labeled a flip-flopper would be to accept the totally absurd position that he will stick to an idea discussed a year earlier without being willing to consider any change in the plan whatsoever based upon changes in the situation upon taking office.

    Under this situation he’s better off being called a flip-flopper (while explaning that he really is not) as opposed to allowing the McCain campa and the media to redefign his position on their terms.

  3. 3
    bill w stl says:

    His problem is that he wants to please too many and many hear only what they want to hear.  He has at times, and even on his website repeated strongly and without wiggle room that he was going to start pulling troops on day 1 and have them out in sixteen months – no ambiguity.  At other times, as noted above, he has left himself wiggle room.  (By the way, the Samantha Powers quote above was then widely criticized and disowned by the Obama camp after she made those comments).
    At the end of the day, you really don’t know where he stands.   I would suspect and hope that he does change his mind on this and base his decision on the what is happening at the time and in the bests long term interest of the US and Iraqis.  Heck, with the progress that has happened over the last year, it is not inconceivable that he can have his cake & eat it too – We might be able to responsibly pull the troops out in less than sixteen months.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:


    Obama has been quite consistent for those who care to pay attention to what he is saying. Of course if you limit yourself to the limited soundbites the news media covers I could see where you would get the false impression.

    It was Samantha Power’s comments on Clinton, not on Iraq, which were disowned.

    At the end of the day where Obama stands is quite clear:

    June 2008: Obama: I’ve Consistently Said That I Will Consult With Military Commanders On The Ground And Be Open To The Possibility Of Tactical Adjustments. Obama said, “I’ve also consistently said that I will consult with military commanders on the ground and that we will always be open to the possibility of tactical adjustments. The important thing is to send a clear signal to the Iraqi people and most importantly to the Iraqi leadership that the U.S. occupation in Iraq is finite, it is gonna be coming to a foreseeable end.” [MSNBC, 6/16/08]

    March 2008: Obama Said He Would Give Senior Military Leaders Opinions Great Weight In Implementing His Iraq Plan But As Commander In Chief Would Make His Own Assessment Of The Situation. Obama was asked “what weight will you give to the counsel of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander, the combatant commander on the ground in Iraq and current intelligence chiefs on the ground in Iraq regarding an immediate phased withdrawal?” Obama said, “I will give their counsel great weight. But, as commander in chief, it is my responsibility to make my own assessment of the situation. We must send a clear signal to the Iraqi political leadership that we are leaving Iraq on a timeline. Doing so will put pressure on those leaders to begin to resolve the political impasse at the heart of this civil war. But I also want to be clear about another thing. I am worried our Army is overstretched and that we have asked an awful lot from our military families. Many in our senior military leadership are worried about a plan that will keep 130,000 troops on the ground in Iraq for the foreseeable future. So, as commander in chief, I will also have to take into consideration the counsel of other senior military leaders who may be concerned that Iraq is undercutting our ability to confront other security challenges.” [Washington Post, 3/2/08]

    March 2008: Obama Said The Size Of The Residual Force Will Depend On Consultation With Military Commanders And “Will Depend On The Circumstances On The Ground.” Obama said, “The precise size of the residual force will depend on consultations with our military commanders and will depend on the circumstances on the ground, including the willingness of the Iraqi government to move toward political accommodation. But let me be clear on one thing: I will end this war, and there will be far fewer Americans in Iraq conducting a much more limited set of missions that include counterterrorism and protection of our embassy and U.S. civilians.” [Washington Post, 3/2/08]

    November 2007: Obama Said He Would Leave Residual Troops In Iraq Based On The Levels Of Violence, “It’s Not My Job To Specify Troop Levels.” Obama said, “If we see a serious effort by the Iraqi leadership to arrive at an agreement and an accommodation and you’ve seen continued reductions of violence, then you need one level of troop protection for the embassy…If things have gone to hell in a hand basket then you need another … It’s not my job to specify troop levels. My job is to tell our commanders on the ground, ‘Here’s your mission. Protect our embassy, protect our diplomats and our humanitarian workers in the area and make sure al Qaeda in Iraq, or other terrorist organizations inside of Iraq are not re-establishing bases there.” [Fosters, 11/28/07]

    November 2007: Obama Said U.S. Has To Make Sure “We Are Not Just Willy-Nilly Removing Troops” And That It May “Take A Little Bit Longer” In Some Areas Where There Is Less Stability. “According to all the reports, we should have been well along our way in getting the Iraqi security forces to be more functional. We then have another 16 months after that to adjust the withdrawal and make sure that we are withdrawing from those areas, based on advice from the military officers in the field, those places where we are secured, made progress and we’re not just willy-nilly removing troops, but we’re making a determination – in this region we see some stability. We’ve had cooperation from local tribal leaders and local officials, so we can afford to remove troops here. Here, we’ve still got problems, it’s going to take a little bit longer. Maybe those are the last areas to pull out.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]

    November 2007: Obama: “If The Commanders Tell Me They Need X, Y And Z, In Order To Accomplish The Very Narrow Mission That I’ve Laid Out, Than I Will Take That Into Consideration.” “You raise a series of legitimate questions. As commander in chief, I’m not going to leave trainers unprotected. In our counterterrorism efforts, I’m not going to have a situation where our efforts can’t be successful. We will structure those forces so they can be successful. We would still have human intelligence capabilities on the ground. Some of them would be civilian, as opposed to military, some would be operating out of our bases as well as our signal intelligence…But listen, I am not going to set up our troops for failure and I’m going to do something half-baked. If the commanders tell me that they need X, Y and Z, in order to accomplish the very narrow mission that I’ve laid out, than I will take that into consideration.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]

    November 2007: Obama: “Even Something As Simple As Protecting Our Embassy Is Going To Dependent On What Is The Security In Baghdad…If There Is Some Sense Of Security, Then That Means One Level Of Force. If You Continue To Have Significant Sectarian Conflict, That Means Another.” “I have not ascribed particular numbers to that and I won’t for precisely the reason I was just talking to Michael about. I want to talk to military folks on the ground, No. 1. No. 2, a lot of it depends on what’s happened on the political front and the diplomatic front. Even something as simple as protecting our embassy is going to be dependent on what is the security environment in Baghdad. If there is some sense of security, then that means one level of force. If you continue to have significant sectarian conflict, that means another, but this is an area where Senator Clinton and I do have a significant contrast.” [New York Times, 11/1/07]

    September 2007: Obama Said He Believed “That We Should Have All Our Troops Out By 2013, But I Don’t Want To Make Promises.” Obama said, “I think it’s hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don’t know what contingency will be out there. What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office — which it appears there may be, unless we can get of our Republican colleagues to change their mind and cut off funding without a timetable — if there’s no timetable — then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians, and making sure that we’re carrying out counterterrorism activities there. I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don’t want to make promises, not knowing what the situation’s going to be three or four years out.” [NH DNC Debate, 9/26/07]

  5. 5
    bill w stl says:

    OK, Ron – I just read these, and I could cut & paste another 10, but even some of these are contradictory – so tell me in a paragraph what you think the essence  is of his position?
    I don’t rely on soundbites, and if you are honest with yourself, you can click on a number of these and see the broader context of what he is saying and the broader context contradicts the point you are trying to make by just cutting out the piece that you did.
    Well informed, but still confused.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    These are not contradictory.

    I suspect you are making the mistake that Josh Marshall wrote about in discussing this controversy in confusing policy and tactics (which might make you incorrectly believe there are contradictions where none exist). Josh wrote:

    I’ve watched this campaign unfold pretty closely. And I’ve listened to Obama’s position on Iraq. He’s been very clear through this year and last on the distinction between strategy and tactics. Presidents set the strategy — which in this context means the goal or the policy. And if the policy is a military one, a President will consult closely with his military advisors on the tactics used to execute the policy.

    This is an elementary distinction the current occupant in the White House has continually tried to confuse by claiming that his policies are driven and constrained by the advice he’s given by his commanders on the ground. There’s nothing odd or contradictory about Obama saying that he’ll change the policy to one of withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq with a specific timetable but that he will consult with his military advisors about how best to execute that policy.

    For the McCain campaign to put out a memo to reporters claiming that Obama has adopted McCain’s policy only shows that his advisors believe that a sizable percentage of the political press is made up of incorrigible morons. And it’s hard to disagree with the judgment.

    The simple truth is that this campaign offers a very clear cut choice on Iraq. One candidate believes that the US occupation of Iraq is the solution; the other thinks it’s the problem. John McCain supports the permanent deployment of US troops in Iraq. That is why his hundred years remark isn’t some gotcha line. It’s a clear statement of his policy. Obama supports a deliberate and orderly withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. It’s a completely different view of America’s role in the world and future in the Middle East. Reporters who can’t grasp what Obama is saying seem simply to have been permanently befuddled by George W. Bush’s game-playing over delegating policy to commanders.

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