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Oct 7th, 2008

If Elected …

Rivals Present Sharp Divide on Iraq Goals

Left, Senator Barack Obama meeting with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, in July 2008. Mr. Obama says he would withdraw most combat troops from Iraq over 16 months. Right, Senator John McCain, seen meeting with Mr. Maliki in March 2008, says he would give the American military commander in Iraq considerable latitude in setting force levels there. (Photo credit: Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters, left; pool photo by Ceerwan Aziz, right)

By Michael R. Gordon

October 6, 2008

WASHINGTON — One of the most pressing questions Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain would confront if elected president is how to build on the security gains in Iraq at a time when troop levels have begun to drop.

The issue was barely discussed in last month’s foreign policy debate. But in recent interviews with The New York Times, the two candidates made clear that they would confront the challenge in starkly different ways.

In the interviews, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain offered conflicting visions of how to shrink the American military presence in Iraq, the best way to encourage further political progress there and what it would mean to succeed after more than five years of war.

They also provided telling clues about how much flexibility the next commander in chief would grant to his generals, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top American general in Iraq who has been named to lead the Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama, who noted that General Petraeus wanted “maximum flexibility” in setting withdrawal schedules, said he “pushed back” when he met with the commander in July by making the case for sending more forces to Afghanistan, which the Democratic candidate views as the main battleground against terrorists.

Mr. McCain, who argued that a favorable outcome in Iraq is vital for American strategy in the Middle East and its overall efforts against terrorists, repeatedly invoked General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and said he would be inclined to give General Petraeus considerable latitude in setting force levels in Iraq.

At the heart of the dispute is Mr. Obama’s 16-month schedule for withdrawing American combat brigades, a timetable that is about twice as fast as that provided for in a draft American and Iraqi accord. Would that deadline spur the Iraqis to overcome their political differences and enable the United States to stabilize Iraq at far lower troop levels, as Mr. Obama asserts? …

“The danger with Obama’s rigid timetable is that it may not allow U.S. commanders to react to events on the ground,” said Toby Dodge, a specialist on Iraq at the University of London and a former adviser to General Petraeus. “McCain’s policies lack the detail needed to confront the challenges of politics in Iraq. Policies developed to please the party faithful are not being subjected to close electoral scrutiny and do not match the complex political and military realities of Iraq.” …

Withdrawing U.S. Troops

There is no question that the American reinforcements dispatched by President Bush have helped reduce sectarian violence, both directly through military operations and indirectly by helping encourage the spread of the Awakening movement, in which neighborhood watch groups have taken on Sunni extremists. …

But American commanders have also warned that the situation remains fragile, and that there has been mixed or no political progress in other areas. …

On the surface, the two candidates’ views on troop cuts appear to have converged: each candidate envisions reductions in American forces over his first term, as does the Iraqi government. But the similarities vanish upon closer inspection.

Mr. Obama’s position on troop cuts was forged in late 2006 as Iraq appeared to be approaching a full-scale civil war. Drawing on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, he opposed Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan and sponsored legislation in January 2007 that would have removed all American combat brigades by the end of March 2008, while allowing a small force to remain for training, counterterrorism and the protection of the American Embassy and its personnel.

At that time, American intelligence agencies warned in a national intelligence estimate that the removal of all American and allied forces within 18 months would “almost certainly” lead to a significant increase in sectarian fighting, suggesting that the speedy, if partial, withdrawal advocated by Mr. Obama would also risk a major increase in violence.

Since then, the gains made during the surge and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s assertion of sovereignty have transformed the issue from a question of whether to start reducing brigades to a question of how fast and under what circumstances. …

Seeking to preserve a measure of flexibility, Mr. Obama said that he would “reserve the right to pause a withdrawal” if it led to a major increase in sectarian violence. He also reiterated that he planned to keep a residual military force to pursue militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protect American installations and personnel, and, if Iraqi forces conducted themselves in a nonsectarian manner, train Iraqi troops. …

Mr. McCain has argued that reductions should be determined by political and military circumstances, a stance taken by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told reporters in June that he favored a “conditions-based approach” that would allow the United States to continuously assess and adjust to events on the ground. …

In January, Mr. McCain told a questioner at a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire that it would not matter if American troops were in Iraq for 50 or even 100 years if the country was stable and the American military was not suffering casualties, drawing an analogy with American deployments in postwar Japan or South Korea, two societies that seem far removed from the tumultuous Middle East.

After Democrats charged that Mr. McCain was advocating an open-ended troop commitment, he said in a speech in May that the success of his strategy would enable most American forces to return home from Iraq by January 2013. …

Prodding the Iraqis

In addition to using troop withdrawals to try to encourage change, Mr. Obama said he would end efforts to train the Iraqi military if Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government did not take adequate steps to integrate the largely Sunni members of the Awakening movements into Iraq’s security forces.

By contrast, Mr. McCain argued that the improved security had finally given the Iraqis the confidence to move forward politically and economically, improving their working relationship with the American military and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Baghdad. Threats to cut off American training or deadlines for removing combat brigades, he argued, would only prompt Iraq to become more dependent on Iran or turn to militias for security. …

Mr. Obama also complained that Mr. McCain “has never clearly spelled out” what it would mean to achieve victory in Iraq. … “I’ll continue to try to find ways to make them move forward. But to threaten withdrawal, frankly, is an option that I would be very reluctant to exercise unless I was sure that we had no other option, and I think we have lots of them,” Mr. McCain said. “I predict that the Iraqi government in a very halting and stumbling fashion, frustrating to us on many occasions, will move forward and progress.”

The Stakes in Iraq

At its most basic, the dispute between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain centers on the importance of the American mission. For Mr. Obama, the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and the efforts he would make there are essentially a matter of damage limitation. By defining a series of minimal goals, Mr. Obama would seek to reduce American forces.

Toward that end, Mr. Obama said his objective was a sovereign Iraq that was not a threat to the United States or its neighbors, was capable of controlling its own borders, was not a “base camp” for terrorists and was not experiencing “mass violence.” He said that it would be important that “the will of the Iraqi people is being expressed” though “the machinery of democracy may not be perfect.”

“I have to think about the fact that given our current levels of deployment our military is stretched very thin, and if we have a sudden situation, let’s say in North Korea right now, we have got some issues,” Mr. Obama said. “And that is before we start talking about the expenditures involved at a time when the administration just announced they want a $700 billion credit line. So that is the lens through which I view the situation in Iraq.”

For Mr. McCain, the problems the United States has encountered in Iraq stemmed from what he saw as the many blunders made during the early years of the occupation, errors that he asserts have been largely remedied by the surge of reinforcements and a new counterinsurgency strategy.

Although the Qaeda militants who planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not carry out their plotting in Iraq, Mr. McCain argues that Qaeda militants, operating with Iraqi Sunnis, gained a foothold in the chaos that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

“I agreed with both General Petraeus and Osama bin Laden, who both said that Iraq was the central battleground in this struggle,” Mr. McCain said. “And I also believe that Afghanistan is going to be a longer struggle in some respects. But the most important thing was that if we failed in Iraq, that it would have had adverse consequences throughout the region.”

Full story


Related: Statement on the Iraq War

3 Responses to “McCain, Obama Split on Iraq”
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