Tag Archives: John McCain

Policy and the End of the Bush Administration

Spencer Ackerman has a spectacular article up about the State Department’s new policy document “Counterinsurgency: A Guide for Policy-Makers,” which is going to be published in November. The policy handbook has a lot of interesting things to say.

The handbook seeks to provide a framework for considering whether Washington should intervene in foreign countries’ counterinsurgency operations, raising difficult questions about whether such nations deserve U.S. support; under what conditions that support should occur, and whether success is possible at acceptable cost. No systematic approach to strategic-level questions in counterinsurgency currently exists for senior U.S. government officials.

Asked for comment, the handbook’s chief author, David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who is now an adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, explained that it tells policy-makers to “think very, very carefully before intervening.” More bluntly, Kilcullen, who helped Petraeus design his 2007 counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, called the decision to invade Iraq “stupid” — in fact, he said “fucking stupid” — and suggested that if policy-makers apply the manual’s lessons, similar wars can be avoided in the future.

. . .

The handbook instructs policy-makers about the necessity of using all elements of national power — not just military force, but also diplomacy, development aid, the rule of law, academic disciplines and other specialties often considered peripheral to warfighting — to triumph in counterinsurgency. Victory, as well, is defined as support for a foreign nation’s ability to successfully govern, rather than a decisive U.S. military effort.

“No amount of competence, know-how or dedication on the part of an intervening country can compensate for lack of determination by the government affected by the insurgency,” the draft reads. “Thus, the primary focus for USG [U.S. government] or international agencies engaging in COIN [counterinsurgency] is often the building of governmental capacity within a host government, rather than directly killing or capturing insurgents.”

There are lessons in the handbook that the U.S. government has clearly been reluctant to adopt. It explicitly instructs policy-makers to “co-opt” insurgents whenever possible — something that the Bush administration’s rhetoric about the “evils” of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents makes problematic.”The purpose of COIN,” the handbook says, “is to build popular support for a government while suppressing or co-opting an insurgent movement.”

Kilcullen added that negotiations are a two-way street in counterinsurgency. “A government that offers [insurgents] no concessions [will] usually lose,” he said, but “an insurgency that offers no concessions will usually lose.” Another piece of advice — one that resonates in the wake of the administration’s torture scandals — simply reads, “Respect People.”

Similarly, the handbook attempts to integrate civilian and military agencies into a concerted strategy — something the Bush administration has been unable to substantively accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan. “COIN planning should integrate civilian and military capabilities across each of the four COIN strategy functions of security, politics, economics and information,” it reads.

The handbook urges that military and civilian efforts in counterinsurgency be launched simultaneously. “Economic and political progress is not dependent upon a completely secure environment, nor does the ability to provide adequate security depend entirely upon on political and economic progress,” the draft reads. “Establishing security is not a precursor to economic and governance activity: rather, security, economic and political efforts must be developed simultaneously in parallel.” Accordingly, the handbook is a joint effort of the Depts. of State, Defense, Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development, with input from other bureaus, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

Beyond the fascinating implications of the handbook itself, Ackerman raises a very interesting point about the upcoming transition between the Bush administration and whoever comes next.

Crane, of the Army War College, worried that the handbook’s scheduled publication — sometime after the November election — might make it a casualty of an unpopular and lame-duck Bush administration. “The dilemma that the writers are gonna have is: do you make it the last gasp of an outgoing administration — or the first policy shot of a new administration?” he said.

For all of the Bush administration’s myriad flaws it has made some substantial policy progress recently. Some of the recent shifts, like negotiating more directly with Iran, will likely stay as American policy, especially if Obama wins. However, there are other areas where neither candidate may be willing to invest the political capital to keep going.The advances in Counter-Insurgency doctrine is one of the major areas, but Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ fight with the Air Force is another that stands out. Obama’s camp could well be hamstrung by the inherent distrust of Democrats on national security policy that some in the military have, while McCain’s advisers certainly don’t seem to be the type to wage major battles to change things at the Pentagon.

A lot of the things that are going on here, like Gates’ battles and the Kilcullen report, are the administration learning from its mistakes. There is always a big risk of losing learned knowledge when adminstrations change, especially when there is a change of parties. Bush wasted a lot of time and effort trying to change every policy Clinton ever held, which had disasterous results such as in North Korea. Now, maybe the fact that Barack Obama has already set up the beginnings of a transition team will help aleviate this problem if he is elected. But he has to win first. Meanwhile, the McCain camp seems to be in disarray, and in any event he is staffed by the type of ideologues who think that Bush has been making major mistakes recently, so there are no guarantees even if there isn’t a change in parties.

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The Press is Biased Against Who Now?

Barack Obama. At least, more of his media coverage is unfavorable than John McCain’s.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington-based media center.

Now, Obama has gotten a lot more airtime than John McCain, it just hasn’t been more favorable. In fact, since the end of the primaries, the trend has reversed. Obama used to get better coverage than McCain.

That was a reversal of the trend during the primaries, when the same researchers found that 64% of statements about Obama — new to the political spotlight — were positive, but just 43% of statements about McCain were positive.

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan’s guests.

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McCain on the Awakening

As I briefly noted yesterday, John McCain is having some trouble with his Iraq messaging. All he wants to say is that everything good in Iraq is a result of his surgerific good judgement and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Yesterday, when asked about Obama’s views on recent progress on Iraq, McCain said Obama didn’t know what he was talking about, because he cited the Anbar Awakening as seperate from the surge.

Kate Couric: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says, while the increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What’s your response to that?

McCain: I don’t know how you respond to something that is as– such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane [phonetic] was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history. Thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. I mean, to deny that their sacrifice didn’t make possible the success of the surge in Iraq, I think, does a great disservice to young men and women who are serving and have sacrificed.

Many people pointed out that this is transparently false, including the fine folks at Democracy Arsenal.

One problem.  The surge wasn’t even announced until a few months after the Anbar Awakening.  Via Spencer Ackerman, here is Colonel MacFarland explaining the Anbar Awakening to Pam Hess of UPI, on September 29 2006.  That would be almost four months before the President even announced the surge.  Petraeus wasn’t even in Iraq yet.

With respect to the violence between the Sunnis and the al Qaeda — actually, I would disagree with the assessment that the al Qaeda have the upper hand. That was true earlier this year when some of the sheikhs began to step forward and some of the insurgent groups began to fight against al Qaeda. The insurgent groups, the nationalist groups, were pretty well beaten by al Qaeda.

This is a different phenomena that’s going on right now. I think that it’s not so much the insurgent groups that are fighting al Qaeda, it’s the — well, it used to be the fence-sitters, the tribal leaders, are stepping forward and cooperating with the Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda, and it’s had a very different result. I think al Qaeda has been pushed up against the ropes by this, and now they’re finding themselves trapped between the coalition and ISF on the one side, and the people on the other.

And here is the NY Times talking about the Anbar Awakening back in March 2007.

The formation of the group in September shocked many Sunni Arabs. It was the most public stand anyone in Anbar had taken against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was founded by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And here is Colin Kahl in Foreign Affairs

The Awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007. Throughout the war, enemy-of-my-enemy logic has driven Sunni decision-making. The Sunnis have seen three “occupiers” as threats: the United States, the Shiites (and their presumed Iranian patrons), and the foreigners and extremists in AQI. Crucial to the Awakening was the reordering of these threats.

But perhaps the most damning assessment of what happened with the Anbar Awakening is from General MacFarland himself.

Why We Succeeded

Clearly, a combination of factors, some of which we may not yet fully understand, contributed to this pivital success. As mentioned before, the enemy overplayed its hand and the people were tired of Al Qaeda. A series of assasinations had elevated younger, more aggressive tribal leaders to positions of influence. A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made those younger leaders open to our overtures. Our willingness to adapt our plan based on the advice of the sheiks, our staunch and timely support for them in times of danger and need, and our ability to deliver on our promises convinced them that they could do business with us…

Democracy Arsenal comments that “if you are going to cite a military officer in a political debate, the least you can do is actually make sure you are citing his argument correctly.” However, to me, the meaning of MacFarland’s comments really undercut John McCain.

Why? Because right now John McCain is completely invested in the notion that the surge alone made progress in Iraq possible. Here’s a post from McCain’s blog that, incredibly, accuses Obama of not respecting the troops because he cites things like the Awakening as contributing to success in Iraq.

Is the surge responsible for the dramatic decline in violence in Iraq? Are U.S. troops responsible for the success of the Awakening movement? Are U.S. forces and our Iraqi allies responsible for marginalizing the Shiite militias? Ask Barack Obama or his surrogates, and the answer you’re likely to hear is ‘no.’

As Barack Obama told Terry Moran in explaining his decision to oppose the surge:

“[I] did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.”

Leave aside the fact that Obama seems to agree with John McCain that the Awakening coincided with the surge, his point is that the success is largely a result of these other “political factors.” That is, it wasn’t U.S. forces that nurtured the Awakening, knocked down the Shiite militias, and brought stability to Iraq, but mysterious and unforeseeable forces beyond our control. It is a transparent dodge for Obama’s own poor judgment in opposing a strategy that has put us on a path to outright victory in Iraq–an outcome Democrats have long said was impossible.The most unseemly aspect of this spin, however, is the necessity of stripping U.S. forces, our Iraqi allies, and American commanders on the ground of any credit in bringing about the massive improvement in Iraqi security, because if they are credited, then the Democrats must also credit John McCain.

The man who helped start the Awakening directly contradicts that claptrap. He says that the Awakening started for two reasons. One, because Al Qaeda in Iraq alienated the local population and turned Sunnis against them. And two, because it looked like the US might leave Iraq. That is exactly what Obama has been saying for some time now. Obama opposed the surge and supported a phased withdrawal because he wanted to put political pressure on the Iraqis, which is exactly what MacFarland said happened. The fear of the US leaving led to the Awakening, which even David Petraeus himself gave the Awakening primary credit for reducing the violence in Iraq.

1) Before you left for Baghdad on this tour, you told Congress there is no military victory in Iraq and that what is needed is a political solution. What is the strongest indication on the ground that the surge is creating the environment needed to achieve a political solution?

There is no question that all of us — Iraqi leaders, as well as Coalition leaders — are frustrated with the slow pace of political solutions. These solutions include fundamental issues that underpin the allocation of resources and power within the Iraqi political state after years of authoritarian rule. It takes time to resolve these issues, however, just as it took the U.S. time to resolve fundamental issues like civil rights (which is similar to de-Ba’athification) or states rights (which is similar to provincial powers).

Nevertheless, there have been some indications of progress. First, we have seen on-the-ground reconciliation among groups that were opposed to the government. The Anbar Awakening is the most prominent, where Sunni Arabs have turned against Al Qaeda and are now being integrated into Iraqi Security Forces. This effort has spread to other areas, as well, such as Baqubah and in locations such as Abu Gharib, Ghaziliyah, and Ameriyah in Baghdad, where local groups have reconciled with the government and the government is in the process of incorporating them into legitimate security organizations.

In short, John McCain doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

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McCain, Obama and the Surge

Perhaps John McCain’s biggest strength this election has been his advocacy of the surge in Iraq. McCain’s story is now that the surge had never happened we would have “lost in Iraq.” Furthermore, McCain claims that Obama has been denying the success of the surge.

“Our troops will come home with honor. And we won’t be defeated. And there won’t be chaos in the region. There won’t be increased Iranian influence in the region. And it will have a bearing on what happens in Afghanistan, as well as the entire region of the world. And I’m proud of what they’ve done. And to deny their success — I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened. The American people will make a judgment.”

McCain has also extended that argument and explicitly argued that “I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”

The second attack is just crazy. It’s basically arguing that Obama is a traitor who is only interested in political power, but beyond the sheer ugliness of it, it is just wrong. Obama did argue for a different strategy in Iraq in early 2007. But so did a lot of other people. To say Obama wanted to lose the war is basically to say that people like James Baker, Jim Hamilton, Lawrence Eagleburger, William Perry and the rest of the Iraq Study Group all wanted to lose. It’s just not a credible story.

Furthermore, while the increased troops in Iraq have clearly helped the security situation, it really is debatable whether the surge deserves most of the credit for the reduction in violence. McCain certainly thinks so, but Obama doesn’t.

In an interview with ABC’s Terry Moran, Obama said that he “did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.”

Obama has a real point here. Additional US troops have definitely been a factor, but have they been the key factor? Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t think so.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?

Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.

Also, while many on the right argue that the Anbar Awakening and Sadr ceasefire are the results of the surge, that line of argument doesn’t really really hold up. Kevin Drum has the timeline:

  • February 2006: Muqtada al-Sadr orders an end to execution-style killings by Mahdi Army death squads.
  • August 2006: Sadr announces a broad ceasefire, which he has maintained ever since.
  • September 2006: The Sunni Awakening begins. Tribal leaders, first in Anbar and later in other provinces, start fighting back against al-Qaeda insurgents.
  • March 2007: The surge begins.

Spencer Ackerman and Matt Yglesias further point why this line is bullshit.

Spencer Ackerman asks the press corps to recognize that “this is completely fucking wrong” and points to then-Colonel, now-General Sean MacFarland explaining the origins of the awakening to UPI’s Pam Hess on September 29, 2006. That was a bit over a month before the midterm elections. The surge wasn’t announced until after the elections and wasn’t actually implemented until long after MacFarland gave the interview. And presumably the events he was describing happened before the interview itself.

This specific timing issue aside, we can see here the larger point that McCain doesn’t actually seem to know what the surge was. But the surge troops were overwhelmingly sent to increase the level of manpower in Baghdad (i.e., not where the Anbar Awakening happened) and almost certainly (along with a tactical shift to more of a population protection mission) deserves credit for reducing the bloodshed in Baghdad by stabilizing the borders between now-segregated neighborhoods. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that it had nothing to do what happened in Anbar, but it wasn’t a major factor, and certainly didn’t make anything happen in September 2006. I note that this isn’t the first time the right has had occasion to appeal to Michael Dummett’s theory of backward causation in their discussion of Iraq.

McCain really is in a tough spot here. He has to run on the surge, whatever the reality is. So, while the surge helped, the improvement in the security situation in Iraq has come from a lot of other things too. McCain can’t seem to acknowledge that, but it’s awfully rich to attack Obama for pointing out reality.

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Is McCain Becoming John Kerry?

One thing that has struck me recently is the degree to which John McCain’s campaign seems to be falling into some of the same traps that ensnared John Kerry in 2004.

On the surface, it seems remarkable that McCain could become Kerry. For one, he’s a Republican. Democrats are unwilling to attack his military service like Republicans did to Kerry. (And don’t get me started on Wes Clark’s comments. Even if you do read it as an attack, which I don’t, it was clearly orders of magnitude less that Republicans wearing purple heart bandaids to questions whether Kerry was wounded enough.) Secondly, McCain is clearly a better politician than Kerry. Nonetheless, McCain really does seem to be falling into some Kerry-esque traps.

To begin with, McCain has placed an awful lot of emphasis on his military service. One thing that Kerry showed is that while voters may like military service, they aren’t likely to vote on it. Talking too much about what happened 35 years ago is a surefire way to lose an election today.

The second area where the McCain campaign seems to be emulating the Kerry camp is on Iraq. On the surface that idea seems absurd. But it isn’t. One of Kerry’s biggest problems on Iraq was that he was stuck in the past. He spent the campaign trying to relitigate the decision to go to war, instead of focusing on the way forward. Kerry never really distinguished himself from Bush on the way forward in Iraq. Instead, Kerry was seen as second guessing the decision to go to war without offering a new way forward.

McCain is doing the same thing. He is betting his entire campaign on relitigating the surge. He doesn’t have a way forward.  When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed with Barack Obama on the way forward in Iraq, McCain responed by going back to the surge. Voters aren’t interested in the past. They are interested in the future. Obama is offering a clear way forward and out of Iraq. McCain won’t say anything about it, except that troops will come home at some point in the future.

Also, like Kerry, McCain hasn’t created any sharp contrasts on other foreign policy issues. He tried on the diplomacy issue, but never got any real traction with it. He just adopted Obama’s position going forward on Afghanistan. If McCain fights the election on the past he will lose, just like Kerry did. McCain is in a tough situation. He doesn’t have a strong position to articulate going forward. He really needs to find one, or he’ll be stuck in the same trap Kerry was stuck in. And we all know how that turns out.

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Turns Out, Maliki Said It Afterall

So, after the Maliki government, through the occupation authority, tried to claim “mistranslation” on his Obama/timeline comments, it turns out they were full of shit. Not only was the translator for the interview Maliki’s, but the New York Times has gotten the audio and confirmed Maliki’s comments.

“Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate,” Mr. Dabbagh said Sunday by telephone. “I have the recording of the voice of Mr. Maliki. We even listened to the translation.”

But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki’s office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki’s interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama’s position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.

The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”

So, just to be clear. Comment as originally reported in Der Spiegel and as translated by Maliki’s guy:

U.S. 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.

Comment as translated by the Times:

“Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

Not exactly the same, but the ideas are. Unsurprisingly, both the White House and McCain’s camp are full of shit on this. McCain put all of his eggs in the mistranslation/misunderstanding basket.

In an interview, Scheunemann dismissed the idea that events abroad had shifted the debate in ways that favor Obama. He also said McCain stood be his 2004 remarks, and that “if the sovereign Iraqi government wants our troops out, our troops will leave. They have not said that.”

Maliki’s comments to der Spiegel were only “inartful,” Scheunemann said.

“If they’re going to go after inartful statements, we can have that debate,” he quipped, noting Obama’s past equivocations on such issues as the Washington, D.C., gun ban and status of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

This is now a long way from “inartful statements.” Maliki brought Obama up and said that “he who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.” That doesn’t seem inartful, unless your definition of inartful is “saying something that hurts us.” That seems like Maliki knew what he was doing and said it anyways.

A White House spokesman, quoted in the Times piece, claimed that

Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., said that embassy officials explained to the Iraqis how the interview in Der Spiegel was being interpreted, given that it came just a day after the two governments announced an agreement over American troops.

“The Iraqis were not aware and wanted to correct it,” he said.

That bullshit spin is directly contradicted by an AP article from yesterday

Confusion over the Iraqi prime minister’s seeming endorsement of Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad’s strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America’s military mission.

The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there.

It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his political survival to the steadfast support of President Bush. Now, an increasingly confident Iraqi government seems to be undermining long-standing White House policies on Iraq.

. . .

“Let’s squeeze them,” al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The squeeze came July 7, when al-Maliki announced in Abu Dhabi that Iraq wanted the base deal to include some kind of timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. The prime minister also proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides had been negotiating.

Hmmmm . . . It seems Maliki knows exactly what he is doing. Contrary to any idiot who thinks this thing may “help McCain” (?!?!?!?!?!), it sure seems like Maliki has just given Barack Obama a gigantic helping hand.

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McCain Chooses Empire

Just last week, John McCain’s advisers were saying:

“John McCain has always been clear that American forces operate in Iraq only with the consent of that country’s democratically elected government,” Michael Goldfarb, a McCain spokesman, told the Huffington Post.

Now, after Maliki’s bombshell that he agrees with Barack Obama, McCain has this to say:

“His domestic politics require him to be for us getting out,” said a senior McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The military says ‘conditions based’ and Maliki said ‘conditions based’ yesterday in the joint statement with Bush. Regardless, voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders.”

Leaving aside the obvious idiocy of claiming that Maliki’s statement was only for domestic political consumption (But as an aside, why would Maliki say this to a German newspaper if it were only to placate domestic politics? I have a feeling Der Spiegel isn’t all that well read in Iraq.), this is McCain’s camp saying that the American military occupation matters more as to what we do in Iraq than the supposedly sovereign government. Sure, we could continue to occupy Iraq if we really wanted to, it’s not as though the Iraqi army could kick us out. But staying there because American military generals want to, over the objections of the local government, is just imperialism. There really is no other way to put it.

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Maliki Embraces Obama

“U.S. 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

John McCain is suddenly is a very tough position. In the campaign thus far he has taken two positions on Iraq. One, that a timeline such as that proposed by Barack Obama would be “setting a date certain for surrender,” and secondly, that if the Iraqi’s ask us to leave we will. Now, McCain is in the impossible position of having to either admit that he envisions the US in Iraq as a long-term, imperial force, staying on in defiance of the local population and sovereign government of Iraq, or embracing the withdrawal timeline that Obama layed out 18 months ago, at the beginning of the campaign, a postion that McCain has characterized as “wanting to lose.”

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Not a Timeline, but Sounding a lot like Obama

TUCSON, July 18 — President Bush and Iraq’s prime minister have agreed to set a “time horizon” for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq as security conditions in the war-ravaged nation continue to improve, White House officials said here Friday.

The agreement, reached during a video conference Thursday between Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, marks a dramatic shift for the Bush administration, which for years has condemned any talk of timetables for withdrawal.

But Maliki and other Iraqi leaders in recent weeks have begun demanding firm withdrawal deadlines from the United States. Bush said earlier this week that he opposes “arbitrary” timetables but was open to setting an “aspirational goal” for moving U.S. troops to a support role.

So, a “time horizon” is apparently different than a timeline, but this sounds an awful lot more like Obama’s Iraq policy than McCain’s. In reality, this sure seems like it is being driven by Maliki, who realizes that his constituents really would like the US to leave sooner rather than later, as opposed to Bush, who has always vociferously opposed this kind of move.

It will be interesting to see how McCain responds to this. McCain’s foreign policy platform thus far in the general has largely consisted of “Don’t surrender (read, withdraw any troops at all) in Iraq” and “Don’t negotiate with dictators.” In the past week Bush has now completely undercut that platform. He’s set a “time horizon” in Iraq and sent high ranking officials to negotiate with Iran. How does McCain respond to his foreign policy being mooted by Bush?

On the Obama side this couldn’t be timed better. He’s scheduled to head to Iraq this week, as well as to Europe and Israel, and this can’t come at a better time. Obama will meet with Iraqi leaders, who just embraced his position, and General Petraeus, who had to have signed off on this, putting Obama in a great position. Now, instead of meeting with officials who are publicly opposed to his position, he will be talking about to how to implement his plans, which aren’t substantively different from theirs.

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Obama Defines the Middle

For all the hand wringing on the left about Obama’s supposed rush to the center, people seem to be really missing what has happened, especially on foreign policy. Obama hasn’t moved to the middle. He has redefined it. When the history of the 2008 campaign is written I have a feeling that the last couple of weeks will loom large in the story. Slowly but surely, the positions Obama has held for most of the campaign, if not for years.

It started around the beginning of July, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out and said

“I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,” Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. “Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.”

In some ways Mullen was just acknowledging reality. But it is a reality that Obama has acknowledged for a long time. On September 12, 2007 Obama said

When we end this war in Iraq, we can finally finish the fight in Afghanistan. That is why I propose stepping up our commitment there, with at least two additional combat brigades and a comprehensive program of aid and support to help Afghans help themselves.

Then, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki came out for a timeline for American withdrawal from Iraq and against permanent American bases, a position Obama has held since he entered Congress. Obama then turned around and argued in a New York Times op-ed this week that when should embrace his and Maliki’s plan for withdrawal.

The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.

Then, we got word that a Pentagon study on the future of Iraq would recommend an even faster withdrawal than Obama has proposed

Expected to be completed in about a month, it will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now. The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi Army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.

Next, we got word that the Bush administration itself is considering further drawdowns of troops in Iraq.

Paradox #1: The Bush Administration’s is Embracing Obama’s Position on Iraq.

Yes, you read it here first: the Bush Administration is begrudgingly coming around to Barack Obama’s position on Iraq; namely supporting a timetable for withdrawal of troops. Now of course, the Bush folks have not adopted this position for all the same reasons that Sen. Obama did last year, but two points are particularly revealing:

The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq. One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan . . .

The desire to move more quickly reflects the view of many in the Pentagon who want to ease the strain on the military but also to free more troops for . . . other missions.

Of course, the need to send more troops to Afghanistan and deal with the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as well as relieve the burden on the military) are two of the key reasons why Obama has been calling for troop withdrawals from Iraq. The approach of the Bush Administration is moving closer to that of the Obama.

Then came yesterday, when two more bits of news broke that shifted the entire foreign policy debate in Obama’s direction. First, John McCain essentially adopted Obama’s Afghanistan policy, calling for more American troops.

Obama has been making this case for investing in Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. By calling for a surge in Afghanistan, McCain is essentially agreeing with him.

Secondly, we got the bombshell news that the Bush administration is sending the third ranking official in the State Department to negotiate with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department’s third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran’s nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.

The decision appeared to bend, if not exactly break, the administration’s insistence that it would not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programs unless it first suspended uranium enrichment, as demanded by three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

Still, after months of accusations and counteraccusations from the United States and Iran, the meeting raised the prospect of an intensified diplomatic push to resolve concerns over Iranian nuclear activity, not unlike the lengthy and painstaking talks that resulted in a deal last month with North Korea.

William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, will attend a meeting on Saturday with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement on Wednesday.

Increased diplomacy with Iran has long been one of the defining elements of Obama’s foreign policy proposals. He took intense heat for his stand in the primaries, when Hillary Clinton attacked him as naive for his willingness to engage in Presidential diplomacy, and then again in the opening of the general, when John McCain went after him for “talking to dictators.” But now George W. Bush is the one radically increasing America’s diplomatic contact with Iran, moving towards Obama’s long standing position.

All in all the last couple of weeks have been remarkable. Far from being the foreign policy radical that McCain has attempted to paint Obama as, Obama has defined the middle. The administration, the Pentagon, the Iraqis and John McCain himself are all coalescing around Obama’s foreign policy positions. On Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, far from Obama moving to the middle, the middle has moved to Obama.

Then, yesterday, Obama further defined his positions in a remarkable foreign policy speech. The speech is worth reading in its entirety to get a full sense of Obama’s foreign policy program, but its essence is clear. Obama is making sure the middle of the American foreign policy debate revolves squarely around him. Whereas McCain has stayed focused on Iraq and to a small extent Afghanistan, Obama also addresses global terrorism, climate change and diplomacy, while putting the entirety of the foreign policy challenges we face in context.

Imagine, for a moment, what we could have done in those days, and months, and years after 9/11.

We could have deployed the full force of American power to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, while supporting real security in Afghanistan.

We could have secured loose nuclear materials around the world, and updated a 20th century non-proliferation framework to meet the challenges of the 21st.

We could have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in alternative sources of energy to grow our economy, save our planet, and end the tyranny of oil.

We could have strengthened old alliances, formed new partnerships, and renewed international institutions to advance peace and prosperity.

We could have called on a new generation to step into the strong currents of history, and to serve their country as troops and teachers, Peace Corps volunteers and police officers.

We could have secured our homeland–investing in sophisticated new protection for our ports, our trains and our power plants.

We could have rebuilt our roads and bridges, laid down new rail and broadband and electricity systems, and made college affordable for every American to strengthen our ability to compete.

We could have done that.

Instead, we have lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies and neglected emerging threats – all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Our men and women in uniform have accomplished every mission we have given them. What’s missing in our debate about Iraq – what has been missing since before the war began – is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy. This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.

I am running for President of the United States to lead this country in a new direction – to seize this moment’s promise. Instead of being distracted from the most pressing threats that we face, I want to overcome them. Instead of pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy on to the brave men and women of our military, I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free. Instead of alienating ourselves from the world, I want America – once again – to lead.

As President, I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy – one that recognizes that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin. I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

That foreign policy platform is not the middle of the American debate. That is a remarkable position for Obama to be in. He is already strongly preferred by the electorate on domestic and economic policy. McCain’s positions on Iraq and Iran are be radically undercut by events. And now everyone is converging around Obama. As long as Obama doesn’t give the middle back he is in the drivers seat of this election.

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