Not Bombing Pakistan
Obama during the debate stated that McCain didn't truly represent Obama's position on whether Obama would use military force against targets within the territory of the United States ally Pakistan. Pakistan recently replaced its strongman dictator with an elected government that has quite a bit of work ahead of it. After Musharraf elevated Pakistan from its former status as a failed state, the country still suffered from civil unrest, social oppression, doubt about government commitment to the rule of law, and lack of government control over the entire territory. Pakistan's new President Zadari, who had been about to impeach his predecessor when the post was vacated suddenly by resignation, will have many things to worry about and many different voices to hear in forming policy for the government established by Pakistanis to govern and protect Pakistan.
Hearing prospective President Obama's statements about the ongoing hazard posed by announcing a safe haven for enemies in the failed-state region within Pakistan neighboring Afghanistan, it was pretty clear what Obama meant. Americans can't leave enemies to regroup, conduct training and recruitment, and to prepare for more attacks against Afghanistan or Americans from a sanctuary in Pakistan any more than it was palatable to do so when fighting to free Korea (where, famously, Gen. MacArthur was ordered by his civilian superior to bomb only the southern half of bridges across the Yalu River, used by China to supply North Korea). Obama's meaning was clear that Americans would have to eliminate the threat. Obama had called Afghanistan a war we must win and he identified what he believed was a crucial impediment to that objective (though, curiously, he doesn't seem to define winning Afghanistan any more than Bush defined winning Iraq). What Obama meant when he said the answer to the problem was that "you take them out" there was no doubt what listeners were to understand about his meaning: areas inside Pakistan look like plausible and legitimate targets in his Afghanistan campaign, and that while he might accept local cooperation to target enemies there if he were satisfied that it would be effective, his targeting of enemies there was not going to be thwarted by locals and their politics.
An unnamed former government official described the effect of the United States' overtures and activities in regard to the Federally Administere Tribal Areas in Pakistan: "Very rarely is something so unpopular and unifying of Pakistanis against something as U.S. military action is. We have successfully unified an otherwise very divergent Pakistani public opinion against a), any military actions in the FATA at all; and b) U.S. unilateral actions in the FATA." In the view of a retired Army officer with experience in Afghanistan, "My personal opinion is that ground incursions of American forces in the tribal areas would have a massively counterproductive effect, undercutting any positive effect." There may be room for activity in the FATA, but it needs both a delicate diplomacy not demonstrated by Obama and a careful operational design to minimize exposure to the worst local backlash. The worst form of local backlash would be much worse than merely missing a high-valued target, or the loss of a few more lives; the most severe backlash would be the return of Pakistan to its former status as a failed state, throwing open the whole nation as a new front in the conflict against anti-Western international Islamofascist murder exports.
McCain's comment on Obama's position -- and he made the commend with a laugh -- was "you don't say that." Of course, McCain didn't believe in safety for the enemy any more than did Obama -- but he recognized that Pakistan was full of Pakistanis who believe in Pakistani control and Pakistani sovereignty over Pakistan. McCain evidently recognized the deleterious foreign relations effect of announcing to the world that as President of the United States Obama would -- when it pleased him, or when he was persuaded an adequately interesting target was available and he wasn't convinced of local capacity to act with enough haste or force -- choose to ignore the borders of nominal allies and conduct military strikes in such territory at will. McCain clearly didn't believe in sanctuary, but was correct in going on record that pre-announced attacks on important regional allies (whose institutional success is critical to winning the mind-war in the terrorism conflict) is just not how you address this problem.
Obama's claim that McCain somehow misstated what Obama meant either means (a) that Obama is as dangerously misspoken as the current President and is as likely to offend and alarm allies though incompetence, or (b) that he was lying. Obama is so crisp in his delivery most of the time that I have a hard time swallowing that he's dangerously misspoken, but perhaps he drifted off-script and didn't know what it'd sound like. I leave it to the reader to work it out. The Jaded Consumer views Obama's apparent consistency that unlateral strikes should be under consideration in the FATA to represent fairly good evidence that during the debate, he meant exactly what he said and McCain understood it perfectly, but thought it was more prudent to keep such thoughts to one's self. For Obama to then claim McCain misstated Obama's position ... well, what can you say? He's a politician, and his lips were moving.
In either case, Obama's hawkishness on Pakistan squares poorly with his "we don't need to be there" view on present-day Iraq. Whatever the argument one might make about what might have transpired had the U.S. followed some different course in the Middle East, the current question is how to respond to the conditions now existing. In Iraq there is currently significant Iranian interest in and genuine activity fomenting meaningful anti-American violence, and Iran's present leadership would be happy to operate camps to export terrorism if Americans created sanctuary in Iraq by leaving before Iraqis had secured it. Iraq and Afghanistan both present to the United States as local, elected governments under siege by religious extremists hoping to establish Islamofascist rule in order to promote militant extremism for export. The fact that Obama's positions square so poorly in these similar instances suggest that Obama's positions aren't principled in their basis, but represent positions adopted for practical purposes. They are not the result of principle, but strategem.
They suggest that Obama is not a genuine agent of change, merely a politician seeking high-profile office and a second salary for life.
But they suggest something else: perhaps Obama, having made up his mind that entering Iraq was a bad idea, is too stubborn to think critically about the position a person should take considering the present circumstances and looking to the future with the view of minimizing American sacrifices. Perhaps Obama gave up on Iraq before it began, decided it was a failure immediately, and doesn't imagine what will befall Americans in a decade if our efforts to ensure we leave Iraqis with a safe and functioning democratic Iraq are not careful and adequate. Perhaps McCain had it right: Obama's stubbornness and inflexibility may be reminiscentof the president both men hope to replace.
First, an aside:
Is the question when to leave Iraq so good for Obama that he's willing to draw out meaningful departure agreements in order to maintain an election-season worry that benefits him? Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari said of Obama, "He asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington." What's good for Obama's election campaign doesn't sound consistent with his rhetoric, and it doesn't seem to play well to Iraqis, either:
If true, this is abhorrent on the same scale as some of the allegations made about intentional delays in the Iran hostage crisis resolution to manipulate the 1980 election. I don't know if those are true, either, but apparently these allegations fall easily enough against either party. The alternative -- fear that a status of forces agreement between the countries would bind the next president -- is absurd to hypothesize in a candidate who touts credentials as a professor of Constitutional law. Under the Constitution it's clear that the President can withdraw from or violate treaties at will, without violating any principle of United States law. Moreover, as Commander-in-Chief, the President cannot be bound by a "contract" with any foreigner to deploy troops in any specific manner. And agreement by definition is aspirational. Existing troop reduction opportunities, undertaken with agreement by Iraqis, should not be delayed simply because it's a nice campaign issue.
Obama insisted that Congress should be involved in negotiations on the status of US troops - and that it was in the interests of both sides not to have an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in its "state of weakness and political confusion."
"However, as an Iraqi, I prefer to have a security agreement that regulates the activities of foreign troops, rather than keeping the matter open." Zebari says.
The difference between the candidates' positions appears stark, but is it any more than semantics and posturing?
The positions on Iraq withdrawal seem pretty simple: McCain says we should withdraw with honor, and Obama says we should withdraw in __ months. The Jaded Consumer leaves this number blank because of the lack of meaning ascribed to the number by Obama over time. In September, he said he would have troops withdrawn in sixteen months, but this was the exact same number -- sixteen months -- he gave when he spoke to Iraq's President Maliki in July. It's now October and I understand the "plan" still calls for troop withdrawal in sixteen months. As the date moves forward but the number in the blank remains consistent and fails to show any sign of ticking down, one wonders what the number in the blank really means and when it begins and when it ends. The number in the blank represents something as nebulous at this point as McCain's own outlook for the future of involvement in Iraq.
Americans want out of Iraq, Iraqis want Americans out of Iraq as soon as it wouldn't lead to chaos, and the question whether there is a difference between the position of the candidates comes down to whether leaving without chaos is or is not feasible within __ months. Of course, the longer we play games with the meaning of the promise to leave in __ months, the more likely it is that it's possible to withdraw troops in __ months without chaos. By continuing to promise departure within __ months, Obama may be trying to have his cake and eat it, too. It may be a distinction without a difference. Some __ months from now, it may very well be that in __ months it will clearly be possible to leave with honor and victory and all that good stuff. (But don't hold your breath; this is the Middle East for crying out loud. The so-called legitimate governments are barbaric.)
What do Iraqis think about withdrawing in __ months?
Iraq's President Maliki was touted as advocating Obama's sixteen-month withdrawal timeline, but doesn't seem to describe the proposed timeline as a schedule with fixed points for specific action, but a guide -- a statement of aspiration, perhaps -- involving some flexibility based on practical developments:
US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.Sixteen months ... but wiggle room?
Iraqi President Maliki, via Der Spiegel
Everyone wants out of Iraq. I sense most Americans want to leave without surrendering the country to the hell represented by the murderers seeking to create an Islamist caliphate and eliminate their religious rivals from access to the nation's wealth and prosperity, but none like being viewed as occupiers and none like the spectre of war without so much as a definition, much less a visible future, of victory. (Americans have a problem with their propaganda machine; maybe the next administration should rent one from Putin.) Obama may not care what it looks like as he orders withdrawal -- victory or defeat -- as he (unlike his running mate Biden) was consistently against entering Iraq, and presumably would feel no personal loss in the U.S. involvement he opposed being viewed internationally as a defeat. Indeed, the carcass of defeat may be a tremendous platform atop which to proclaim a new U.S. foreign policy -- a great soundbite, if a slim likelihood.
When the Jaded Consumer looks at places in this world where the United States has achieved unequivocal success in halting encroaching totalitarians, and in nurturing effective democracies in lands where previously Americans fought to the death, it's easy to identify the examples of Germany, Japan, and Korea (South Korea, not the dying dictatorship whose inhabitants are so malnourished they are several inches shorter on average than their democratic neighbors) as places where the war "ended" in "victory." Let's face it: we're still in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Tens of thousands of troops, every year. People die there, too -- in training exercises, vehicle accidents, suicides -- and it's worth asking why Iraq would be different.
The cultural difference between the United States and Iraq isn't somehow clearly greater than it was with Japan. The big difference is that Iraq shares a border with a major state sponsor of instability and murder, which provides training in bomb-making and gives supplies and personnel to conduct operations throughout the region. The success in Japan (which still doesn't quite get antitrust law or Constitutional rights, and which has one of the world's largest militaries despite a constitutional ban renouncing the government's right to use force to settle international disputes) would never have been achieved to the extent that ultimately materialized had some rogue state been in a position to infiltrate men, materiel, and mass murder into the territory of Japan.
Realistic discussion of what "victory" means in Iraq -- or in Afghanistan -- hasn't yet occurred. The Jaded Consumer expects that discussing departure without defining "victory" indicates both a lack of concern for the impact of American presence, and a lack of concern about the purposes Americans have been working to achieve. It's not as though Iraq is without foreign evildoers bent on bringing the nation back into the Dark Ages, and it's not as though these evildoers would not as happily use a failed Iraq as a failed Pakistan or a failed Afghanistan as a base for launching the next wave of anti-Western violence.
Why is Afghanistan different now than Iraq? Why will Pakistan be different?
Dreaming About the Past
I fear that while Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s, we squandered a good chance to show Shia in Southern Iraq that we were on the side of goodness and justice by liberating them from Saddam Hussein, but poisoned the well by delivering them back into his hands and standing by while they were attacked by helicopter gunships. I do not see how anyone remembering this decision can conclude that the United States stands for liberty or justice. It will take a generation or more to unteach that the United States coddles dictators at the expense of the oppressed.
In the meantime, I think the real position of the parties on the Middle East is far from either clear or clearly different. For all his talk about getting out of Iraq, Obama is a raving hawk on Afghanistan even to the point of utterly un-diplomatic threats against fragile new democracies that are important regional allies. For all his apparent willingness to remain in Iraq, McCain has actually been on the right side of operational choices about how to conclude it. For all Obama's rhetoric about the importance of Afghanistan, he seems dead-set against recognizing that Islamofascists in Iran have turned Iraq into the new focus of conflict in the ideological war that in 2001 arguably had an epicenter in Afghanistan.
We don't need a President who is ready to fight the last war but the next one. I wish I was confident one of the candidates fit the bill, but I feel fairly confident that Obama's rhetoric raises more concerns than solutions, and is built more on FUD about McCain's supposed allegiance to his party than it is on any actual policy analysis.
(The "willing to break ranks to do the right thing for the American people" concept doesn't seem to favor Obama. During the current Congress, which has been controlled by Democrats and thus likely prevents many Republican measures from getting out of committee and to a full vote, McCain voted with Republicans a bit under 90% of the time when he did vote, which during this Congress he's declined to do about two thirds of the time. McCain's lifetime record of voting with his party is closer to 80%, reflecting more disagreement when Republicans actually control bills coming up for a vote. I'd like to hear about lifetime absenteeism rates, to know better whether he's usually too busy to do his job or just has better things to do than to vote on things that will be decided up or down by the Democratic majority anyway. Obama -- presumably in a position to vote on Democratic measures that actually survive committees dominated by Democratss -- has a 96% record of voting with his party in during the only term he's held in the Senate, and has been absent for 46% of the votes since he's been in office, which makes Obama's raising of voting records a fairly curious strategy for someone claiming to bring "change" to Capitol Hill, when his own record suggests a possibly-indecicive party apparatchik.)