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The War We're In

Obama's disturbing op-ed.

4:45 PM, Jul 14, 2008 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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IT'S REASSURING TO HEAR Sen. Barack Obama, a man who based his presidential bid on the supposed inevitability of defeat in Iraq, recognize the success of the surge, which he also predicted was bound to fail. But his New York Times op-ed today betrays a strategic understanding that is more deeply disturbing; it's not just his "Plan for Iraq" that's worrisome, but his plan for America in the world.

In Obama's view of international politics and power, Iraq is not simply "the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy," but a diversion, a strategic sideshow. He claims "Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and never has been," and offers "broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Obama needs to look at a map and a history book. Iraq long has been and today remains one of the two naturally dominant powers in the Persian Gulf region, home to the second-largest proven oil reserves on the planet and a front-line bulwark against revolutionary Iran. That's where this story began: with Saddam's Hussein's ambitions for hegemony and his long and bloody war with Iran. It was a pity, as Henry Kissinger famously
quipped, that both sides in that conflict couldn't lose. But neither the United States nor the rest of the world could be oblivious to the outcome; the strategic stakes were too great.

Obama should also listen to Osama, who recognized "Baghdad as the capital of the caliphate" that he aspires to recreate. "The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation," he declared in 2004. "It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world's millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate." Bin Laden had a clear grasp of the inherent balance of power in the Islamic world; he would have preferred to rule in Baghdad than Kabul.

Obama should also listen more attentively to what our most important allies--that is, the Iraqis--say. Of course the Iraqis don't want a permanent American occupation, or a colonial-style 99-year-lease on military bases. But they do want an enduring strategic partnership with the United States, not simply to secure their country internally but against a collection of nasty neighbors, beginning with Iran. It's not just Iraqi nationalism or domestic politics that is delaying negotiations on such an arrangement--it's Iraqi concerns about whether the United States will continue to be a steadfast partner. The one thing Iraqis know for certain about Barack Obama is that he'll withdraw all American combat brigades within 16 months.

If Obama has a cloudy view of Iraq he has an even murkier understanding of Afghanistan. He still talks as though this "good war" is a counterterrorism fight against al Qaeda, when in fact it's an anti-Taliban counterinsurgency. "Two additional combat brigades," as he promises in the op-ed aren't going to "finish the job" in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, time is more important than troop levels; as a former U.S. commander there is fond of saying, "The Americans have all the watches, but the Afghans have all the time." Obama might as well be calling for a Rumsfeld-style "rapid, decisive operation."

Most fatally, Obama--and indeed most of the Democratic Party--still reject the very idea of "The Long War." As the Bush administration finally has come to understand, there is an ongoing struggle for the future of the Islamic world, a political and cultural space that not only includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan but ranges from West Africa and Western Europe to Southeast Asia. We can't ignore it; it is a critical fact of modern international politics. We can't unilaterally "end this war," as Obama might like; even if we are not interested in it, the enemy is interested in us. Nor can we fight it in a neatly compartmented or nicely sequenced fashion; we should have clear strategic understandings and priorities--such as the fact that Iraq is inherently important--but must admit that our adversaries are diffuse and driven by differing priorities of their own.