Obama and Iraq

One of Sen. Barack Obama’s many strengths is his ability to inspire beyond party lines. Because he lacks the baggage of the past, and because his melodic message of hope speaks to many, he garnered much more support from independents in Iowa than either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

But if he truly wants to be the candidate of inclusiveness, Mr. Obama has some work to do. This is particularly evident on the central national security challenge of the day, the Iraq war. Mr. Obama’s problem is not his initial opposition to the war. At this point, that stance strikes many voters as prescient. Even for those of us who believe the main problem in Iraq was shoddy planning by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, Mr. Obama’s position is hard to dismiss.

But there are nonetheless two problems with Mr. Obama’s Iraq views that call into doubt his ability to build a truly inclusive American political movement. First, he seems contemptuous of the motivations of those who supported the war. While showing proper respect for the heroic efforts of our troops, he displays little regard for the views of those many Americans who saw the case for war in the first place — even as he has called for a more civil and respectful political debate.

This is unfortunate. Saddam Hussein was one of the worst and most dangerous dictators of the late 20th century. The basic proposition of unseating him was hardly an unconscionable idea, even if President Bush’s approach to doing so was unilateralist, arrogant and careless. With our last image of Saddam a resigned figure heading for the gallows, it is easy to forget who this monster was.

He had used chemical weapons against his own defenseless people, as well as the armies of Iran; he violated 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions that demanded his verifiable disarmament; he had the blood of perhaps one million people on his hands; he transformed his country into what Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya famously called the “republic of fear.” (Saddam’s behavior didn’t improve when we tried the kind of high-level diplomacy Mr. Obama favors by sending envoys like Donald Rumsfeld and April Glaspie.)

Saddam’s worst may have been behind him by 2003 — but he was grooming his sadistic sons Uday and Qusay as successors with unknowable consequences. His WMD programs were in limbo, we now know. But before the war even German intelligence thought him only half a dozen years from a nuclear weapon.

Sanctions limited his funds for military programs, but the sanctions were eroding fast in the years before the invasion. Saddam’s links to al Qaeda were overdramatized, but Saddam’s own record of atrocities against his own people, Iranians and Kuwaitis, as well as his support for anti-Israeli terrorists, were heinous enough.

Yet Mr. Obama consistently accuses those who supported the war of political motivations — and unsavory ones at that. On Dec. 27, for example, Mr. Obama said in Des Moines, Iowa, “You can’t fall in line behind the conventional thinking on issues as profound as war and then offer yourself as the leader who is best prepared to chart a new and better course for America.”

That echoed earlier comments, such as his Oct. 15 speech in Madison, Wis., in which, discussing Iraq, he criticized his opponents for succumbing to “triangulation and poll-driven politics.” Within the Democratic Party, this message seems to work fairly well. But as a way to build national consensus — or as proof of a new, more sincere and fair-minded brand of politics — it falls short.

Mr. Obama’s second Iraq problem is his insistence that, whatever happens there during 2008, he would withdraw all our main combat forces in the first 16 months of his presidency. Such a message may resonate with Americans, and particularly Democrats, right now. However, it is unlikely that centrist voters will support such a policy once they fully consider its likely implications for Iraqi — and American — national security. Given Iraq’s fragile institutions, and the fresh wounds among its Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, it is doubtful that Iraq can avoid renewed civil warfare after a rapid U.S. withdrawal.

Strategically, it makes little sense to rush for the exits in Iraq when violence has declined by two-thirds over the last year — a remarkable accomplishment that Mr. Obama belittled in Manchester, N.H., during the Democratic debate on Saturday when he claimed that such a development only brought Iraq back to 2006 levels of lethality (which is probably not true).

Mr. Obama’s other comment Saturday, that Sunni tribes only organized against al Qaeda after Democrats won the 2006 Congressional elections, was also incorrect. The Sunni awakening began earlier, for reasons having little to do with American politics. And it is more likely to be jeopardized than buttressed by promises of hasty American withdrawal: In that event, Sunnis and Shiites will worry more about war against each other, and be less inclined to work with each other or to target extremists within their own midst.

Politically, Republicans will surely try to paint any policy of rapid, complete withdrawal as Democratic defeatism. Mr. Obama needs to think hard about whether his uplifting message of hope is really bulletproof enough to withstand these charges — and about whether his Iraq views truly reflect the non-ideological, nonpartisan wisdom of the American people that he seeks to lead.