By Request: Obama on Iraq

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Jeff says “I really want you, as critically thinking journalist, to address the reality that Barack Obama is not committed to a real ‘troop withdrawal’ at all.” From Iraq, that is. The tone of the rest of his comment suggests that he thinks I’m part of some kind of conspiracy to cover up for Obama on this. But I’m not. For a while during the primaries I was writing about this a lot, hoping that either Clinton or Obama would join Bill Richardson in really committing to end the war. But neither did.

As best I can tell, it’s wrong to assume that there’s a real fact of the matter as to what it is Obama is planning to do about Iraq when he becomes president. At the moment, he’s running for president and would like as wide a swathe as possible of people to believe that he agrees with them. All indications are that Obama wants some kind of substantial reduction in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, and some of the people who I’d expect to be serving in an Obama administration favor a complete withdrawal. But other people who I’d expect to be serving in an Obama administration favor various kinds of schemes for a reduced long-term presence. Obama’s rhetoric is compatible with either of those alternatives.

To me, the middle ground option doesn’t sound viable. My hope would be that when Obama’s sitting in the Oval Office talking to people, he’ll reach that conclusion, too. But maybe he won’t. Presumably the attitude of congress will make a difference. I’d guess that the more Responsible Plan candidates who win, the more likely we are to see an Obama administration leave Iraq expeditiously. But of course in addition to events in congress and events in Obama’s mind, events in the world — including what, if anything, comes of Obama’s proposed regional diplomatic initiatives — are going to make a difference. Fundamentally, presidential campaign season is a bad moment to get a sense of what people are “really” thinking. It is a good moment to try to pin people down to make unambiguous commitments, and during the primary season, the period when liberals had maximum leverage, neither Obama nor Clinton was willing to make such a commitment.