Spring in Baghdad saw stadiums open to shelter yet another wave of refugees, displaced from the capital's eastern slums by the combined assault of the U.S. military and its proxy Iraqi forces upon the Mahdi Army loyal to the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The fresh attempt to "root out" the Mahdi Army from its birthplace of Sadr City was the latest battle in Iraq's complex and ever shifting civil war -- a war in which the U.S. military, in a sense, is but the largest and most heavily armored militia. At the very least, the fighting in Sadr City shows that the relative calm of late 2007 and early 2008 was indeed "fragile and reversible," in the words of Gen. David Petraeus. More likely, it demonstrates that the winter's decline in violence was only a lull in chaos with no end in sight. Yet in the United States, one might be forgiven for thinking the war in Iraq is over.
Though deeply unpopular, the war has steadily receded from public consciousness, thanks to economic woes, the exhausting Democratic presidential primary and an easily gulled mainstream media. While Iraq still ranks high on the list of voters' concerns, the bursting of the housing bubble and skyrocketing gas and food prices have focused most Americans' minds on their wallets. The Hillary Clinton campaign's decision in January to race-bait Barack Obama drove the Democratic primary away from the issues into a downward spiral of identity politics and desperate appeals to the ugly side of American political consciousness, culminating in Clinton's suggestion that Obama might be assassinated, as Bobby Kennedy was in 1968. Clinton's long flameout completely absorbed the media's attention during the April testimony of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before Congress, right up until her belated bow to the inevitable in early June. The spectacle of the primary was sordid enough without considering its larger political consequences, one of which is that the Bush administration's narrative that "the surge is working" remains essentially intact.
There are ample grounds for challenging this tale of success. Now that the former First Lady has finally stood down, Obama can begin to do so. One reason why Iraq faded from the front page during the Democratic primary is that both he and Clinton pledged to begin withdrawing "combat brigades" from Iraq immediately upon assuming office, meaning that journalists had no conflict between the candidates to report on that score. The general election campaign should provide plenty of that conflict. But there is reason to worry, nevertheless, that Obama will not be able to fulfill his promises to wind down the war -- even in the event that those promises are sincere.
Quietly, the Bush administration is negotiating with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over an agreement that could keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq for years after the surge is over. On November 26, 2007, President George W. Bush and Maliki signed a statement of principles for such an agreement, to be concluded before December 31 of this year, when the UN mandate for the so-called Multinational Force in Iraq will expire. Because it will not be a "treaty," this accord may not be subject to Congressional approval, but it is expected to make the U.S. military presence contingent upon the wishes of the Maliki government, which likely depends on that presence for its political survival. The Iraqi defense minister told CNN that Iraq could "need" a U.S. garrison until 2018. According to Crocker, the agreement may be ready in July. [Ed. note: As this article went to press, negotiations had stalled, but leaders both sides continued to express confidence that differences would be worked out by July.]
In Iraq, this proposed arrangement is a major rallying point for the political opposition. Sadr's followers are among the thousands of Iraqis who have taken to the streets in protest against what they see as Iraqi acquiescence in permanent foreign occupation. The demonstrations frighten the Maliki government enough that its spokesmen have taken to denouncing alleged U.S. negotiating positions in the Iraqi press, if only to create the appearance that they are fighting for Iraqi sovereignty.
Yet in the U.S., at least among the political class, there is unseemly resignation to the determination of the Bush administration to bequeath the occupation of Iraq to its successor. Certainly, the "mainstream," Democrat-identified anti-war organizations like MoveOn and Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq are so resigned. At a leadership summit in Washington in mid-January, they agreed to cease pressing Congress to stop funding the massive Iraq deployment. It was a form of unilateral disarmament. Since taking over Congress after the 2006 elections, to be sure, the Democrats have been cowed by the "support the troops" bromide into swallowing their supposedly passionate anti-war feelings. The proper strategy in these circumstances is to keep up the pressure: Democrats should not only be using their legislative majority to curb Bush's freedom of action, they should be using their bully pulpit to make winning ideological arguments against the war, so that the "support the troops" slogan loses its power to intimidate. But the ideological field has been abandoned, and with it, the chances of affecting the outcome. Another $165.4 billion for the war sailed through the Senate in May, and will probably pass the House of Representatives as well.
The irony of this latest preemptive surrender by the Democrats is that the public would listen to alternative prescriptions for the Iraq impasse, if only the Democrats would advertise them, instead of relying solely on old-fashioned Bush bashing. It is no longer news that the Bush administration was duplicitous in selling the war and lazy in planning for the aftermath. When, in January, the highly regarded Center for Public Integrity issued a study documenting 935 false statements made by top Bush administration officials in the lead-up to the war, the media just noted it and moved on. The litany of errors during the direct U.S. misrule of Iraq in 2003-2004 is likewise material for the history books. For many Americans, the question has long since ceased to be why the U.S. invaded Iraq, or whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but how the U.S. can get out of Iraq in a way that is responsible and minimizes further spilling of blood.
It is the Republicans, oddly enough, who have moved most boldly to speak to Americans looking for the answer. In May, John McCain predicted what the country would look like at the end of his hoped-for first term. "By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom," he said. "The Iraq war has been won." A few pundits scoffed that, in positing a "timetable" for withdrawal, McCain was effacing the bright line between himself and the Democrats, but they completely missed the point. The septuagenarian senator's speech exemplified the classic Republican gambit: Position the GOP as the party of victory on the battlefield, and the Democrats -- by default -- become cast as the party of defeat. He is counting on the media to do its part in insinuating his framing of the question into voters' minds.
In the general election campaign, Barack Obama can choose one of two basic lines of counter-argument. One -- the object of McCain's fervent desires -- is that the Republican is being irresponsible in forecasting what Iraq will look like in 2013 and has no credible plan for ensuring that U.S. troops will be able to leave by that date. That choice will entrap Obama on McCain's home turf of endless debate over who is best qualified to manage the war so that it produces a "success" for the United States. It is worrisome that the National Security Network, one wing of the Democratic administration in waiting, immediately attacked McCain's speech on these grounds of competence. As a man who served and suffered horribly in U.S. uniform, McCain has the upper hand in this type of Iraq debate.
The second possible choice, and by far the more promising one for peace and stability, would move past the notion that the U.S. can somehow withdraw from Iraq without significant consequences for both its strategic position in the Persian Gulf and for Iraq. In this scenario, Obama would disavow the hubris that posits that, having done so much to break Iraq, the U.S. can fix it. Rather, Obama would advocate that the U.S. act to minimize the consequences of its inevitable withdrawal and, in the long term, be generous in assisting Iraq in its recovery from 40 years of war, sanctions and dictatorship. Obama has shown signs of having the courage to choose this course and the rhetorical skill to make the necessary case.
Recent American political history teaches, however, that Obama, terrified of appearing weak, will skate around both of these two options and settle on neither. Should that come to pass, McCain's electoral chances will be greatly enhanced. In the event that Obama wins the White House nonetheless, the win will not be viewed as a popular mandate for the tough decision to withdraw completely from Iraq, and the Republicans will be emboldened in their certain strategy for turning Iraq into the Democrats' war. Past GOP behavior suggests the blueprint for besieging President Barack Obama: Block, through all available means, any genuinely alternative plan for Iraq. Then goad the new commander-in-chief with accusations of defeatism and fecklessness into proposing his own strategy for "victory." In these circumstances, Obama will be tempted to test out newly elastic definitions of "combat brigades." For these reasons, and more, the U.S. occupation of Iraq is poised to be a campaign issue in 2012.