I couldn’t believe my ears. Here was Joe Biden, he who infamously recommended back in 2007 or so that the best way forward for Iraq was to split it into three ethnic (and warring) enclaves, telling Larry King that it looked like the outcome of the Iraq war could be one of the “great achievements” of the Obama administration.
Let me get this straight. Here is a guy who, for years, criticized the Bush Administration’s approach to the Iraq war, who signed on to the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, which basically said find a way out of this mess, even if it means negotiating with the Iranians, and who opposed the “surge” of 2007 that led to our current position there on the cusp of victory. And now that everything that he proposed did not happen, and everything he opposed turned out to be pointing toward a good result, he’s front and center in wanting to take credit for it.
And it’s not just “old Joe” mouthing off again. Robert Gibbs, who reminds me more and more of the Pillsbury Doughboy, although perhaps with less snap, endorsed the view in a press conference the next day: his view (in bright shining contrast to all available evidence) is that the opposition of Barack Obama and those of like mind back during the campaign and even before influenced President Bush so that the policies that have led to this success are really the result of effective opposition.
This would be the same Barack Obama who said in 2007, he thought not only that the surge would not work, but that it would make matters worse, because it would give reluctant Iraqi politicians an excuse to avoid the hard work of compromise. And the same Barack Obama who campaigned on a promise to get the hell out of Iraq within months. And who, when asked repeatedly over the course of 2009, as his administration was able to shift focus toward Afghanistan precisely because of the success of the surge, whether he could agree that it was a success – couldn’t bring himself to verbalize the obvious. (We don’t know, he said disingenuously, whether the policies I favored would have had an equal or better result.)
Let’s not remake history here. Back in late 2006, when it looked like it was all going pear-shaped in Iraq, when the Iraq Study Group returned their verdict that the best we could hope for was a retreat that minimized the ignominy, and when senior Democrats like Harry Reid were unabashedly declaring “this war is lost,” one man refused to accept the defeatism of conventional wisdom. That was George W. Bush. In the mold of Lincoln, who resisted similar defeatists in his Cabinet, Bush threw aside the counsels of retreat and insisted that with the right generals and the right strategy the war could be won. And he was right. Bush was right. The surge has been a huge success – bringing Iraq back from the brink of an ethnic civil war to the point where Biden can now say, “you’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer” – that is to say, on the time schedule negotiated by the Bush Administration on the Status of Forces Agreement that succeeded the UN troop authorization – and that “you’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.” Well, golle-e-e. Wasn’t it one of the favorite tropes of the anti-Bush brigade that you couldn’t – and shouldn’t – “force democracy” onto another people?
Look, Ronald Reagan famously said, “there is no limit to what a man can do if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Bush has got to be at least somewhat bemused by this late-arriving indirect accolade. But it is chutzpah beyond the normal dimensions of even the most shameless of Washington leaders for any Democrats – especially these – to claim any credit for the success in Iraq beyond resisting the temptation to throw it all away in the midst of a hasty retreat. I do give Obama credit for that – he at least saw, once he was in direct consultation with those running the war, that his preferred course (straight toward the rear) would lead to disaster. Still, it is a weak reed to lean on: we decided not to screw up what was started here, therefore we get credit for what was accomplished.
And I’ll have to say, it is emblematic of this administration’s approach to the great conflicts we find ourselves in that Obama can not bring himself to utter the word “victory.” In both Iraq and Afghanistan, his avowed objectives are to “bring the war to a responsible end.” Not even an end where our interests are positively served. Simply a “responsible” end. I guess that means we extricate ourselves and we don’t leave things too much worse off than before we arrived. Not looking for “victory.” No “triumph” in our sights. Just a “responsible end.” I can see how the troops must be inspired to follow Obama to the gates of Hell – as long as they can extricate themselves responsibly.
This speaks volumes about Obama’s mentality, and it’s not distinguishable in any particulars from the soft-on-defense attitude with which liberals in general are charged. He does not view the deployment of arms as a positive tool in furthering a nation’s interests. Therefore, the mere fact of sending troops into combat signals a defeat of policy – it should have been avoidable. You could tell how reluctant he was to do the necessary thing in Afghanistan, and send the troops that his commanding general Stanley McChrystal said were necessary to avoid calamity (not achieve victory, mind you, but avoid defeat). Thank goodness he has enough of a realist streak in him that could see, as he did in Iraq, that his preferred course of action would be disastrous. But the dithering made it clear he was casting about for any reasonable way to avoid it.
It was just this sort of reluctance that led Johnson to undermine his own military’s efforts in Vietnam. Micro-managing the war from Washington, deciding on bombing targets from within the White House, and putting constraints on our soldier’s abilities to take the fight to the enemy led to demoralized troops (who were reluctant in the first place due to the draft) who had no clear objectives. Territory was won and then abandoned, the lives lost in the taking completely wasted. Maybe McNamara and the others were right, that a no-holds-barred effort to defeat the North Vietnamese would have brought China into the conflict. But they were certainly wrong in thinking that a war in which one side is pursuing a limited engagement and the other side is going all-out with everything could have any other but the obvious ending.
Obama does not seem to have that weakness, at least not yet. The offensive that started this weekend is high-stakes, and I support it. I hope he keeps the faith when the enthusiasm on the home front really starts to flag.
But, please, is it too much to ask that this most articulate and polished of Presidents should have the grace to acknowledge that his predecessor’s policies, which he himself is following, have led to a successful – even triumphant – ending to the long struggle in Iraq?