Obama, Iraq, And ‘The Left’

In a new article on progressives and Afghanistan, Michael Cohen quotes my colleague Brian Katulis saying that progressives “were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign” around the Iraq surge, “which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan.”

The Center for a New American Security’s Andrew Exum calls this “disingenuous”:

Brian and other analysts at CAP — the most influential think tank on the American Left, with many alumni in the Obama Administration and a fantastic public relations staff — have published extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their 2007 report, “Strategic Reset,” was a major report which argued — contra the Surge — for a phased withdrawal to take place in Iraq within one year from the report’s publication date in June 2007. (Okay, in retrospect, that was a really bad idea.) But the problem with “Strategic Reset” and other papers is that not only did they fail to persuade anyone in Bush Administration, they also failed to persuade the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Obama campaign’s ultimate stance on Iraq, for example, looked a lot more like products being produced by CFR, Brookings, CNAS, and other think tanks in the center and center-left than it did anything produced by the Left. By late 2008, the Obama campaign’s position on Iraq largely mirrored that of the Bush Administration!

Easy one first: The reason that Obama’s Iraq position “mirrored that of the Bush Administration” by late 2008 is, of course, because by late 2008 the Bush administration had been pressured into accepting a withdrawal agreement with a clear timetable that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself acknowledged was modeled on Barack Obama’s campaign position. Disingenuous indeed.


In regard to “Strategic Reset,” as described by Michael Crowley in this New Republic piece from 2008, the Obama campaign eventually adopted a position somewhere in between CAP and CNAS, though one with a timeline — a very live issue at the time — which CAP supported and CNAS did not.

But, more importantly, let’s look at what policy the Obama administration adopted once in office: A withdrawal combat forces by August 2010, and of all remaining troops by December 2011, much closer to CAP’s position than CNAS’s proposed “Conditional Engagement” (which Katulis and Peter Juul critiqued in this series of posts.)

And it’s a very good thing, too. If Obama had adopted “Conditional Engagement,” instead of preparing to have U.S. combat troops out by this summer, we would have probably just pushed back the U.S. withdrawal yet another six months (to somewhere in 2015 by now) in response to the delay in Iraqi government formation, while spending a lot of time trying to develop a clever package of rewards and punishments to get the Iraqis to behave like adults around the table.