President Barack Obama's military "pull-out" from Iraq as announced last week isn't what his campaign promised -- thank goodness.
Stripped of Obama drama -- the artful polemics, pulpit theatrics and packaged sizzle that marked his campaign and are his core political strength -- Obama's plan differs little from the Bush administration's.
Bush administration plans called for a phased transition from "more coalition security operations" to "fewer" based on the continuing, demonstrated improvement in the capabilities of Iraq's own military and police forces -- "rheostat" warfare is the term. Stabilizing, securing and extending the authority of Iraq's national government was an integral part of the process. As "fewer" combat operations nudged toward "zero," U.S. logistics and training support units would continue to assist Iraqi forces.
"No" combat operations was qualified. U.S. forces in the region would remain on "strategic overwatch" -- a "night light" for the Iraqi government, particularly useful when confronting Iranian finagling. U.S. special operations personnel would also continue to assist the Iraqis in conducting anti-terrorist operations.
Obama's "new plan" retains these elements.
Yet the president argues he is fulfilling a campaign pledge to pull out quickly, a pledge that intentionally and insistently echoed Sen. Harry Reid's, D-Nev., declaration that the war in Iraq was lost.
Reid's claim was stupid, nakedly partisan, deleterious to the war effort and demonstrably false.
Iraq's January provincial elections are another indicator that the emerging victory continues. The London Times reported Baghdad's nightclubs are open for business, noting, "... the burgeoning nightlife in the Iraqi capital is the most dramatic evidence so far that this city is returning to its old, pre-war ways ... ."
Booze, tarts and watering holes for Iraqi literati indicate progress of a sort -- one reporters can comprehend. I'll admit they were economic and social indicators I expected, for security and liberty permit the libertine, and security and liberty were the trend lines the likes of Harry Reid failed to see. In an ArenaUSA video filmed in May 2008, I pointed out another indicator of emerging victory in Iraq would be the return of Baghdad's nightlife.
The surge of 2007 energized and solidified political, economic and military trends that began in 2004 -- positive trends from the perspective of Iraq and the United States -- trends like an improving Iraqi Army, economic recovery and increasingly capable Iraqi governmental institutions.
The key, of course, is an elected, fully sovereign Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki did not officially form his democratically elected Iraqi government until May 2006. May 2009 is the third anniversary of the historic event, and in a historical lens -- especially given the security challenges represented by al-Qaida terrorists and Saddamist loyalists, as well as cultural and religious divisions exacerbated by terrorist actions -- the Iraqi government's accomplishments are extraordinary.
Someday that will be recognized. Obama hinted at it in his speech.
Obama's speech describing his "pullout" plan was artfully riddled with rhetorical hedges -- the type that provide diplomatic and military wiggle room. After mentioning inevitable "tactical adjustments" he said, "… this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners … ." In March 2008, an Obama adviser, Samantha Power, told a surprised BBC interviewer that, no matter the campaign rhetoric, that's what we should expect once he was in office -- flexibility.
Obama continues to pursue a sleight of hand, overseeing a phased transition that doesn't resemble the rapid pullout once demanded by his Democratic primary election supporters.
Words, however, matter -- they have moral, psychological and political effects.
Couching U.S. disengagement in the language of defeat is a mistake Obama must avoid, though this is precisely the kind of rhetorical flourish that thrills his radical supporters. The biggest mistake would be to disengage and put Iraq's nascent democratic state at risk.
The Obama administration faces an extraordinary historical quandary -- Obama greatly admires fellow Illinoisan Abe Lincoln, the liberator. Astute policy choices offer Obama the opportunity to secure victory in Iraq and participate in another historic extension of liberty. While his supporters might applaud, a withdrawal that snatches defeat from the jaw of victory will be historically damned.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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