In hindsight, it was a mistake—an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today—for Obama to offer such a specific timetable. In matters of foreign policy, flexibility is a President’s primary defense against surprise. At the start of 2007, no one in Baghdad would have predicted that blood-soaked neighborhoods would begin returning to life within a year. The improved conditions can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush’s surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia’s unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment. With the level of violence down, the Iraqi government and Army have begun to show signs of functioning in less sectarian ways. These developments may be temporary or cyclical; predicting the future in Iraq has been a losing game. Indeed, it was President Bush’s folly to ignore for years the shifting realities on the ground.
Of course, the mistake was offering a timetable at all. Wars aren't won by setting a deadline. No serious war policy includes timelines and deadlines. Obama's policy was purely political and in no way accounted for any military realities and that is the mistake, if you are kind enough to call it that. Obama turned a military strategy into a political calculation. That worked well politically as long as the current military strategy wasn't working. Now that it has, not only is his policy bad policy but bad politics.
The politics of the issue is tricky, because acknowledging changed ideas in response to changed facts is considered a failing by the political class. Accordingly, Obama, on the night that he proclaimed himself the nominee, in St. Paul, made a familiar declaration: “Start leaving we must. It’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.” His supporters claim that the polls are with Obama, that war fatigue will make Iraq a political winner for him in November. Yet, as exhausted as the public is with the war, a candidate who seems heedless of progress in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism, which John McCain’s campaign will connect to its broader theme of Obama’s inexperience in and weakness on national security. The relative success of the surge is one of the few issues going McCain’s way; we’ll be hearing about it more and more between now and November, and it might sway some centrist voters who have doubts about Obama.
Obama has shown, with his speech on race, that he has a talent for candor. One can imagine him speaking more honestly on Iraq. If pressed on his timetable for withdrawal, he could say, “That was always a goal, not a blueprint. When circumstances change, I don’t close my eyes—I adapt.” He could detail in his speeches the functions that American troops and diplomats can continue to perform even as our primary combat role recedes: training and advising, counterterrorism, brokering deals among Iraqi factions, checking their expansionist impulses, opening talks with our enemies in the region. He could promise to negotiate all this with Iraqi leaders, emphasizing the difference between a relationship that respects the wishes of the public in both countries and one in which Iraqis are coerced into coöperation. If Obama truly wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an honorable way to end.
Now, I would welcome Barack Obama coming around on Iraq policy and it would be a welcome change, however that is not going to take back the reality of the situation. Barack Obama has been against the surge from the beginning. He voted against funding the troops. He has consistently insisted on removing troops precipitously. He continues to be for a timetable despite the new reality. Barack Obama's problem is that he has been wrong on the surge from the beginning.
John McCain was one of the first politicians to come out against Rumsfeld's failed policies. He was one of the first politicians to stand up for the surge. Barack Obama's problem on Iraq is that his opponent has been right when everyone else has been silent. Barack Obama's problem is that his opponent has lead on the issue and lead in the right direction.
Barack Obama's Iraq problem is one of intransigence, and flexibility would help his Iraq policy. That said, nealy two years into a successful military operation is a little late to come to the proverbial ballgame, and far too late when your opponent got there right away.