Monday, July 28, 2008

You must be kidding: Obama says residual troop levels in Iraq are "entirely conditions-based"

I wrote about this a few days ago when he ducked Katie Couric's question by torturing the distinction between tactics and strategy. According to The One, the president sets the strategy: Most troops out in 16 months but some left behind for various missions. The generals supply the tactics: To carry out those missions responsibly, we need X number of troops. What does X equal? Why, it's . "entirely conditions-based":
In Iraq, it's not new that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has wanted to take control of his own country. But there's always been this gap between his assessment of his abilities and American commanders' saying he's not up to it. As president, faced with that difference between what he says he can do and what the commanders say he can do, how would you choose between them?

Iraq is a sovereign country. Not just according to me, but according to George Bush and John McCain. So ultimately our presence there is at their invitation, and their policy decisions have to be taken into account. I also think that Maliki recognizes that they're going to need our help for some time to come, as our commanders insist, but that the help is of the sort that is consistent with the kind of phased withdrawal that I have promoted. We're going to have to provide them with logistical support, intelligence support. We're going to have to have a very capable counterterrorism strike force. We're going to have to continue to train their Army and police to make them more effective.

You've been talking about those limited missions for a long time. Having gone there and talked to both diplomatic and military folks, do you have a clearer idea of how big a force you'd need to leave behind to fulfill all those functions?

I do think that's entirely conditions-based. It's hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now.

Team McCain points to Bob Novak's column this week citing unnamed Obama advisors as saying this could mean leaving as many as 50,000 troops in place. According to a recent essay by Colin Kahl, who runs Obama's working group on Iraq, in the "near term" they might keep as many as 12 brigades there for "overwatch," i.e. support, duties.

If Obama's top priority really is withdrawal, his Iraq policy should begin by setting the number of troops he's comfortable leaving in the field and then asking for recommendations on which missions are feasible given that number. The fact that he's going about it the other way, starting with the missions and then building any drawdown around them, is a decidedly McCain-esque (i.e. conditions-based, i.e. responsible) approach. He tweaked McCain this morning for having lately come around to so many of his own positions, but in light of this, he and Maverick are almost mirror images on Iraq now: McCain thinks troop levels should depend on conditions but concedes that 16 months is a "pretty good timetable" whereas Obama thinks 16 months is a pretty good timetable but concedes that, er, troop levels should depend on conditions. Nuance. Predictably, the McCain camp is crowing about it. Here's their statement, hot off the presses:
"Today Barack Obama finally abandoned his dangerous insistence on an unconditional withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by making clear that for the foreseeable future, troop levels in Iraq will be `entirely conditions based.' We welcome this latest shift in Senator Obama's position, but it is obvious that it was only a lack of experience and judgment that kept him from arriving at this position sooner.

"John McCain has always held the position that any withdrawal from Iraq must be based on conditions on the ground. With the incredible success of the surge, which John McCain advocated, it is increasingly likely that U.S. troops will be able to withdraw with victory in hand. John McCain had long urged Barack Obama, who opposed the surge, to return to Iraq in order to see the immense changes in the security situation there since his last visit. Now that Obama has finally met with General Petraeus, it appears that he has also come to the conclusion that troop levels in Iraq must be based on the conditions on the ground."

The key remaining conceptual difference between them is, of course, the type of missions they have in mind for residual troops. McCain surely imagines something more ambitious, Obama something more limited and support-oriented. Watch for the debate to shift to that subject next, especially in light of the big AP story this afternoon talking about troops in the field already shifting to peacekeeper roles (which they've had for awhile in some parts of Iraq) and reconstruction support. Are U.S. peacekeepers out of the question for President Obama? We'll see.

Update: Per the last paragraph and the evolving scope of the mission, a reader notes that Obama's residual force would theoretically contain no combat troops. Big difference with McCain, to be sure, but again - read the AP story. There's not much combat going on in Iraq anymore that would require combat troops anyway. The issue now is peacekeepers, troops who are going to walk the beat, see sporadic action, and reassure Iraqis that there's a strong security presence available to deal with contingencies while the IA gets up to speed. How about it, BO?


Obama overseas: The people were less impressed than the media

While Barack Obama was wowing the crowds in Berlin, his Republican opponent was at Schmidt's Restaurant and Sausage Haus in Columbus, Ohio, trying to live up to its slogan about making "the best of the Wurst". Trying to get a little love and attention seemed a stubbornly hopeless task for John McCain, the Vietnam war hero who, only a few months ago, had been politely welcomed in the same capitals as Obama, but without the mania. Most media commentators regarded his tour of the diners and supermarkets of Middle America as pitiful. "I'm not making that up. Senator `National Security' went from the cheese aisle to the fudge house and ordered a box of cream puffs," television presenter Keith Olbermann scoffed.

The voters did not seem to mind in the least, however. "We love him," said Diane Woods, from Columbus. "I don't know why Obama is getting all this attention. McCain is right where he should be - in America."

Some aspects of McCain's tour did appear comical at the time. The 71-year-old husband of a multi-millionaire heiress was in a grocery store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, bemoaning the high price of milk while Obama was discussing the future of the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Or he was running radio ads in tiny hamlets called Berlin blasting Obama's foreign policy, while the Democrat was smiling and patting Chancellor Angela Merkel on the shoulder in the genuine German capital.

It was cornball politics but, it transpired, none the worse for that. McCain's picture made the front pages of newspapers in the heartlands of America while Obama's aides wondered nervously whether it was really desirable to attract a 200,000 crowd in Berlin when his biggest rally in America had drawn only 70,000 - and that was in Oregon, the home of hippies and latte drinkers.

Initially, the polls showed McCain gaining on Obama. By the end of the week there was a "baby bounce" for the Democrat. On Friday Gallup and Rasmussen's tracking polls showed that he had opened up a 5-6 point national lead over the Arizona senator.

Will that last? Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, still rues the moment when, high in the polls, he punched the air triumphantly at the party's 1992 Sheffield rally and shouted: "We're all right." To this day he believes that his premature victory lap cost him the election. Could Obama look back on his heady overseas tour with similar regret?

Lanny Davis, a former White House official under Bill Clinton, believes Obama must make the economy his priority from now on. "`The economy, stupid' is more relevant than ever. When he returns, he should not utter one more word on foreign policy and confront John McCain on what he intends to do about the semi-depression we are in."

The gulf between fashionable East and West Coast opinion and the views of residents of the "flyover states" of Middle America rarely seemed more pronounced than last week. Obama's tour seemed to be going so well, as far as the liberal commentariat was concerned.

Eugene Robinson, a columnist in The Washington Post, gushed about the "extraordinary luck that has followed Obama's new Boeing 757 around the globe like an escort plane". Others looked at the Obama '08/President stitched on to the back of the pilot's chair on his O-Force One campaign jet and shuddered at his presumption.

When Obama cancelled a proposed visit to injured US servicemen at Landstuhl, in Germany, after the Pentagon reminded him that he could come as a senator but not as a political campaigner, yet found time to go to the gym in the Berlin Ritz-Carlton, the Republicans' picture of him as a phoney-baloney speechifier was complete "If you want to remember one thing about this trip it is that Barack Obama chose to work out rather than see the wounded troops because he couldn't bring [television anchors] Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams with him," said Sean Hannity, a conservative talk show host.



Barack Obama had ample reason to recall the Berlin Airlift of 1948 during his dramatic speech in the German capital last week. The airlift was an early and critical success for the West in the Cold War, with clear relevance to our own time, the war in Iraq, and the free world's conflict with radical Islam. But having reached back 60 years to that pivotal hour of American leadership, Obama proceeded to draw from it exactly the wrong lessons.

The Soviet Union had blockaded western Berlin on June 24, 1948, choking off access to the city by land and water and threatening 2.5 million people with starvation. Moscow was determined to force the United States and its allies out of Berlin. To capitulate to Soviet pressure, as Obama rightly noted, "would have allowed Communism to march across Europe." Yet many in the West advocated retreat, fearing that the only way to keep the city open was to use the atomic bomb -- and launch World War III.

But for President Truman, retreat was unthinkable. "We stay in Berlin, period," he decreed. Overriding the doubts of senior advisers, including Secretary of State George C. Marshall and General Omar Bradley, the Army Chief of Staff, Truman ordered the Armed Forces to begin supplying Berlin by air.

Military planners initially thought that with a "very big operation," they might be able to get 700 tons of food to Berlin. Within weeks, the Air Force was flying in twice that amount every day, as well as supplies of coal.

"Pilots and crew were making heroic efforts," David McCullough recorded in his sweeping biography of Truman. "At times planes were landing as often as every four minutes -- British Yorks and Dakotas, America C-47s and the newer, much larger, four-engine C-54s . . . Ground crews worked round the clock. `We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We're prouder of it today,' said The New York Times."

Yet the pressure to abandon Berlin persisted. The CIA argued that the airlift had worsened matters by "making Berlin a major test of US-Soviet strength" and affirming "direct US responsibility" for West Berlin. The airlift was bound to fail, the intelligence analysts warned. Truman didn't waver. "We'll stay in Berlin -- come what may," he wrote in his diary on July 19. "I don't pass the buck, nor do I alibi out of any decision I make."

It would take nearly a year and more than 277,000 flights, but in the end it was the Soviets who backed down. On May 12, 1949, the blockade ended -- a triumph of American prowess and perseverance, and a momentous vindication for Truman.

But not once in his Berlin speech did Obama acknowledge Truman's fortitude, or even mention his name. Nor did he mention the US Air Force, or the 31 American pilots who died during the airlift. Indeed, Obama seemed to go out of his way not to say plainly that what saved Berlin in that dark time was America's military might. Save for a solitary reference to "the first American plane," he never described one of the greatest American operations of the postwar period as an American operation at all. He spoke only of "the airlift," "the planes," "those pilots." Perhaps their American identity wasn't something he cared to stress amid all his "people of the world" salutations and talk of "global citizenship."

"People of the world," Obama declaimed, "look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one." But the world *didn't* stand as one during the Cold War; it was riven by an Iron Curtain. For more than four decades, America and the West confronted an implacable enemy on the other side of that divide. What finally defeated that enemy and ended the Cold War was not harmony and goodwill, but American strength and resolve.

Obama's speech was a paean to international cooperation and unity. "Now is the time to join together," he said. "It was this spirit that led airlift planes to appear in the sky above our heads." No -- it was a Democratic president named Truman, who had the audacity to order an airlift when others counseled retreat, and the grit to see it through when others were ready to withdraw.

Sixty years later, it is a very different kind of Democrat who is running for president. Obama may have wowed 'em in Berlin, but he's no Harry Truman.


What Did Obama Learn in Iraq? The senator hasn't shown us much yet

Barack Obama's trip to Iraq was so presidential that at moments, he sounded like our current White House resident. When Karen Tumulty of Time asked Obama what he'd learned on his trip, he said, "It confirmed a lot of my beliefs." Lara Logan of CBS asked him if he was ever in doubt that he could lead the country in war as commander in chief, and he answered, "Never."

After seven and a half years of George Bush, we should pause when a man auditioning for president says that the facts confirmed his beliefs and that he's never in doubt. As Obama himself has warned us at other moments, these are signs that a fearless leader may be letting ideology or rigidity steer him in the wrong direction. We know, of course, that Barack Obama, in fact, goes through life thinking in subtle, nuanced, and interesting ways. He's probably got lots of complex input from his visit to Iraq that he's dissecting and analyzing. But he's not sharing much. And what he has shared on the occasion of his big trip hasn't been very nourishing.

Before Obama flew to Baghdad, I asked his top foreign-policy adviser, Susan Rice, what kinds of questions he'd asked of his advisers over the months to test whether his Iraq withdrawal plan still matched the realities on the ground in Iraq. Rice gave me no examples. And now that the trip is over, we have no better sense of how Sen. Obama thinks about Iraq. It's not that I expect grand revelations. But Obama still holds the same policy views he did more than a year and a half ago, even though a lot has changed since then in Iraq, and a lot of those events appear to contradict his earlier views. We know that Obama hasn't moved, but we don't know, really, why that's so.

The main complexity Obama has to confront in Iraq is the apparent success of the most recent phase of U.S. military strategy, of which the troop surge was a key part. Violence has come down from stratospheric heights. The success is relative (violence is still at 2005 levels), but the situation is far better than Obama predicted. When he voted against the surge in January 2007, he claimed on more than one occasion that it would lead to increased casualties and sectarian violence. It didn't. How'd he get that one wrong? In January 2007, Obama claimed that the Iraqi government would make no hard choices if the United States stayed. But they have made hard choices. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched incursions into Basra and confronted cleric Muqtada Sadr, both of which helped pave the way for the Sunni faction's return to the government. This is not enough progress to suggest Iraq is anywhere near stable, but like the drop in violence, it's more than Obama predicted.

These are not academic questions. Some people would say the vote on the surge was one of Obama's most important as a senator. As Obama pointed out regularly during the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war, a person's past vote tells you something about his or her judgment. Obama has talked a lot about the clarity of his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. He also once suggested that if he'd been forced to cast an actual vote for or against the Iraq war as a senator, his view might have been complicated. On the surge, we get a chance to watch Obama grapple with similar complexities in real time. Or, at least, we should.

Obama's take on the surge also tells us how he processes information about Iraq. This has direct bearing on how he shapes his policy for the country today. The same choices are in play-will military tactics or withdrawal get the Iraqis to make political progress? If Obama was wrong about the tactical gains that would be made by the new strategy and wrong about how the Iraqi political leaders would react, can his larger theory about how Iraqis will respond to a troop pullout remain intact? Perhaps, but he has the burden of explanation. Does he elide contradictions, claim they're irrelevant, and generally spin? In his interview with NBC's Brian Williams, he suggested that he'd always said the surge would decrease violence in Iraq. That's not just spin. It's not true. At the time Bush announced the surge, Obama said: "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse."

The surge that Obama opposed had two parts to it: an increase in troops and a bet on a new military strategy. Obama opposed the additional troops; he also opposed a host of other new tactics Gen. Petraeus tried, arguing they would not lead to political improvement. Even if you agree with the argument that the additional brigades didn't change much in Iraq on their own, you still have to account for whether the overall Petraeus strategy shift worked to assist the positive developments among Sunnis and Sadr's Shiite militia. Obama suggests the military had almost no role in the Anbar Awakening and the decision by Sadr's militia to stand down-that the two sets of events merely happened "at the same time." Military leaders think they had a role in bringing about these improvements. (This might be a bigger dis of the brass than his conflict with them over a timeline for withdrawal.) What did he learn on his trip that suggests he's right and the generals are wrong? Did nothing on the trip shade his view?

These questions are linked to the big looming problem in Iraq-the slow pace of political reform-and how U.S. policy fixes that problem. Obama maintains that whatever gains the new strategy has produced on the political front, they haven't been enough. Only by setting his timetable for withdrawal will Iraqis shape up and make hard choices. This has always been at the heart of his policy, and when asked about the success of the surge, Obama doubled down on the idea that only withdrawal could get the Iraqis moving. Terry Moran of ABC asked if he would vote for the surge knowing what he knows now. He said he would not. He suggested withdrawal might have yielded the same or better results as the Petraeus strategy. Did he get any new evidence on his trip to support this theory?

Obama once argued that the Anbar Awakening of September 20006, in which Sunni tribesmen turned against al-Qaida, started because Democrats took control of Congress. (The awakening started months before the 2006 election, but never mind, McCain also mangled the timeline this week.) Obama's theory was that since Democrats had promised to withdraw troops, Sunnis started taking their affairs into their own hands. But given that Congress never made good on its promise to reduce funding or troop levels, and in fact troop levels increased, why didn't Sunni violence go up? What did Obama learn on his trip that's relevant here?

Will Obama expand on his thinking about these Iraq specifics in the coming days? Politically, it would probably be a bad idea for him to do so. Obama looks like he's on the right side of the moment. The Iraqi prime minister has validated his plan for a 16-month withdrawal timeline, and the Bush administration is talking in a similar way. For months, Obama has called for engagement with Iran and now that's what the administration is doing. So, too, on Afghanistan, which he's been focusing on for months. Though he deftly used his Democratic opponents' past votes during the primaries to argue he had better judgment, he'll now seek to take advantage of voters' preference for thinking about the future. "Let's not re-fight the past," said former Sen. Bob Kerrey in an Obama campaign statement criticizing McCain for his obsession over Obama's position on the surge.

Perhaps Obama doesn't want to share his views because his inquisitive mind sometimes takes him to contradictory places. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes about pulling aside reporters who were living in Iraq to get their views about the war. He expected them to agree with his call for a troop reduction. They didn't. They said a troop reduction would start a civil war. Obama called for a troop reduction anyway, but we know his mind is alive enough to capture and remember a piece of data that didn't fit with his pre-existing views. Are contradictory observations fine for a book but off-limits when you're a political candidate? Admitting you're wrong, or even that your thinking has evolved, is risky for a politician. Maybe too risky. That's certainly what George Bush believes.


Obamessiah who makes Paris Hilton look reclusive

And verily he came among us. The Obamessiah was too modest to perform any actual miracles on the steps of No10 Downing Street, but yesterday he did speak to a man who thinks he's God (Tony Blair), a man in need of resurrection (Gordon Brown) and a man leading an exiled people out of the wilderness (David Cameron).

What an almighty fuss, if you'll forgive the pun, about a junior Senator who's still only a contender for the White House. You'd think he had already got his bottom on the President's seat in the Oval Office.

After the Obamania that has spread with the speed of a biblical plague across America and much of mainland Europe, it was finally Britain's turn. But following eight countries in seven days and a carbon footprint of 10,000 air miles, Barack Obama had to persuade us he was here to do more than just change planes on the way home.

And that was always going to be tricky, because this visit was conducted mainly behind closed doors. There was no address to the masses as there had been in Berlin (but then, the Germans do like a mass rally...) and no double-handed Press conference with the Premier, as there was with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. As one of his accompanying Press corps was overheard saying to colleagues: `Hey, guys, another three handshakes and we're home.'

So what did we get? Um, not much. The first glimpse came outside his London hotel, where he had breakfast with Middle East envoy Tony Blair. As Mr Blair's car fell into an unstatesmanlike convoy with a laundry truck, Obama emerged before the media scrum with almost presidential composure. He wore a smile as white as his box-fresh shirt, a dark suit and a deep-red tie, all accessorised with a kind of bullet-proof confidence.

Half an hour later, when he appeared in the Downing Street garden alongside Gordon Brown, it was obvious they were wearing matching outfits, but they could not have looked more different - the energy and freshness of Obama contrasting painfully against the exhausted perma-crumple of our own Premier.

Then there was a Press conference on the steps of No10. But where was Obama's soaring rhetoric, the compelling, charismatic oratory that has come to define his Presidential campaign? Perhaps it was still going around a luggage carousel at Heathrow, because he'd certainly left it somewhere.

His preamble was a bit moth-eaten, although that is unsurprising since it had been well used at other points on the world stage in previous days. He'd had a wonderful visit and had talked to Gordon Brown about the transatlantic alliance, climate change, international terrorism and the world's wobbly finances. Well, whoopdy-doo. That's what most of us are discussing, too, but we're not running for President.

His Q&A with the assembled 150-strong Press pack was a little better. He was measured and thoughtful, and even managed a couple of jokes, especially about his own success, pointing out: `You are always more popular before you're in charge.'

Afterwards it was off to see David Cameron at the House of Commons, enabling commentators to speculate on his meeting with past, current and future Prime Ministers. And then he was gone. It was a pretty low-key visit for a man who admitted, `I'm so overexposed I make Paris Hilton look like a recluse.' He's exposed, yes, but he leaves this shore without us really knowing any more about him.

In Berlin, Obama couldn't wait to tell the 200,000 crowd that his father had been a goatherd in Kenya and his grandfather a cook for the British during colonial rule. A cook? I wonder if he passed on his recipe for souffl‚s, those tricky dishes that look fantastic in the rarefied atmosphere of the oven but collapse with a phhht of hot air when they come into contact with the real world. I suppose we'll find out after America's elections in November.


Obama is all talk

It is an extraordinary sight to walk into a basic two-room house under a mango tree in rural east Africa and discover what is essentially a shrine to Barack Obama.

The small brick house with no running water, a tin roof and roving chickens, goats and cows is owned by Sarah Obama, Barack's 86-year-old step-grandmother. Inside, the walls are decorated with a 2008 Obama election sticker, an old "Barack Obama for Senate" poster on which he has written "Mama Sarah Habai [how are you?]", a 2005 calendar that says "The Kenyan Wonder Boy in the US", and more than a dozen family photos.

But this bucolic scene in his father's village of Kogelo near the Equator in western Kenya conceals a troubling reality that, until now, has never been spoken about. Barack Obama, the Evening Standard can reveal, after we went to the village earlier this month, has failed to honour the pledges of assistance that he made to a school named in his honour when he visited here amid great fanfare two years ago.

At that historic homecoming in August 2006 Obama was greeted as a hero with thousands lining the dirt streets of Kogelo. He visited the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School built on land donated by his paternal grandfather. After addressing the pupils, a third of whom are orphans, and dancing with them as they sang songs in his honour, he was shown a school with four dilapidated classrooms that lacked even basic resources such as water, sanitation and electricity.

He told the assembled press, local politicians (who included current Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga), and students: "Hopefully I can provide some assistance in the future to this school and all that it can be." He then turned to the school's principal, Yuanita Obiero, and assured her and her teachers: "I know you are working very hard and struggling to bring up this school, but I have said I will assist the school and I will do so."

Obiero says that although Obama did not explicitly use the word "financial" to qualify the nature of the assistance he was offering, "there was no doubt among us [teachers] that is what he meant. We interpreted his words as meaning he would help fund the school, either personally or by raising sponsors or both, in order to give our school desperately-needed modern facilities and a facelift". She added that 10 of the school's 144 pupils are Obama's relatives.



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