Monday, November 10, 2008

If I were Obama, part 1: Iraq

Barack Obama was unique among the 2008 presidential candidates because of his immediate and vocal opposition to the Iraq war. That his original stand was both principled and prescient does him no good now, over five years and 4000 casualties into the war. However, hearkening to the first Bush administration -- George H.W. Bush, or Bush-41 -- may serve Obama well at this point.

Recent history gives us this comparison: why was Bush-41 able to prosecute and conclude a US engagement in Iraq successfully? And why was Bush-43, with the strong wind of public outrage of 9/11 at his back, so clearly and completely unable to secure public support or military success in the same place?

  • Bush-41 articulated his reasons for going into Iraq: Saddam Hussein had invaded a small and defenseless country. Anyone who has spent time on a playground understands that bullies are held accountable by older siblings. Bush-43, by contrast, provided several possible reasons, but did so unconvincingly and without a coherent narrative. Among the Bush-43 rationales:

    1. Weapons of mass destruction. Few intelligence decisions have been so poorly made as the idea that Iraq was teeming with WMD. The Bush-43 staff stretched every possible point to somehow support the idea that Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed a WMD threat. By all accounts, the Bush-43 staff deliberately distorted the intelligence, arm-twisted administration officials who still had international credibility (such as Colin Powell), and whipped up what froth they could in terms of public opinion.

    2. Al-Qaeda. It is well-established now that al-Qaeda had no significant presence in Iraq before the US invaded. Al-Qaeda was entrenched in neighboring Afghanistan, which the Bush-43 administration has deprioritized behind Iraq. It is similarly known that Saddam Hussein had no involvement with the 9/11 attacks. For Bush-43 to instigate and allow that perception to continue suggests that whatever the actual reasons are, they may well not stand up to public scrutiny.

    3. Saddam as bogeyman. The demonization of Saddam Hussein was easily the most effective of the Bush-43 narratives, grounded as it was in fact. However, Hussein's capture, trial, and execution appear to have had no impact whatsoever on the facts on the ground in Iraq.

  • Bush-41 carefully marshalled public opinion -- around the world as well as at home -- before launching any military offensives. He built on previous groundwork in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, built strong support for the US position throughout Europe, and assembled Arab countries throughout the region to provide a unified approach.
In this context, Barack Obama's options are not what they were during his initial opposition to the Iraq war. Yet it seems to me that Obama can make demonstrable progress that furthers US interests and security by addressing those shortcomings in the Bush-43 approach.

First, open the door to a multilateral approach to the Iraq war, both among the great powers and throughout the region. The regional approach means developing and acknowledging stakeholders in the Middle East. All national players must feel that they have input into a regional consensus. Not every country will get its way, but if all countries in the area can commit to an ongoing dialogue -- and the price for terminating that dialogue is set by the other actors, not unilaterally by the US -- then those nations can begin to believe that the Iraq war will have a sustainable ending. And as regional nations come to own the process, then they own the outcome. An investment of Obama's substantial political capital may pay significant dividends in the years ahead.

Second, re-engage the UN Security Council and our European allies on the subject of Iraq. Normally, I don't place too much faith in the ability of the UN to make meaningful progress on areas of intense conflict, particularly during an active war, but in this instance several powerful countries have security and economic interests in the Mideast that could lead to some relatively quick alignment. France and Russia have enormous investments in Iraq -- most of which have ceased to operate over the past five years but still have considerable value -- and Western Europe is even more dependent on foreign oil and other natural energy resources than the US. The difficult part of this approach is that we need to go into those discussions with transparency, openness to the leadership of other countries, and with some humility. But these are the hallmarks of classic diplomacy, and one of the great travesties of the Bush-43 administration is the degree to which diplomacy was rendered ineffective through clumsy and arrogant heavy-handedness. Again, Obama has substantial goodwill in capitals throughout Europe and elsewhere; he should use it immediately to draw world leaders to the table for multilateral discussions on Iraq. Who knows, they might even come up with something.

An odd coincidence that the administration of the most eloquent speaker in a generation of American politics may need to do a lot of ... listening.

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