The war in Iraq has been on the back burner of the American political scene for some time. During the final months of the interminable primary season, the headlines were dominated by relatively hollow talk about NAFTA, a vitally important discussion of Senator Barack Obama’s relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and the now moot question of whether onetime Democratic front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton could beat the math and wrestle her party’s nomination away from Obama.
Obama has yet to confirm when he will make his promised trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, which will also include visits to France, Germany, Great Britain, and Israel — though it seems to be scheduled within the next couple of weeks. Regardless of whether it comes before or after the August 25 Democratic National Convention in Denver, that trip once again will catapult the Iraq War to the center of political debate.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, discounts the continuing psychic, political, and economic cost of maintaining a large American military presence in Iraq for as many as 100 years. Obama does not. But so far, at least, Obama has failed to communicate the grave and complex difficulties the nation will face in withdrawing from the Iraq quagmire. That none of his fellow Democratic presidential aspirants failed to fully appreciate those difficulties is beside the point. After Obama’s official August instatement as his party’s standard-bearer, that will be even more irrelevant.
At issue is Obama’s campaign position to immediately begin withdrawing combat brigades from Iraq, and to have achieved total withdrawal — save for some non-combat troops necessary to protect our diplomats — within 16 months of assuming office, which would be May 2010.
Putting aside the definition of what constitutes “combat” troops — and that is sure to become an issue in the months ahead — there are approximately 152,000 American servicemen and -women in Iraq. A close reading of the policy tea leaves that gather around Washington think tanks suggests that it would not be a surprise if the US still had somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 boots on the ground by the middle of 2010. (For readers interested in more detail than space here allows, check out former Phoenix political writer Michael Crowley’s piece in the May 7 issue of the New Republic, and George Packer’s report in the current issue of the New Yorker.)
Get ready to get used to the term “conditional engagement.” That is a phrase coined by a trio of experts at the Center for a New American Security to justify a reduced but continued American military presence in Iraq. The term is used in the Center’s June report entitled “Shaping the Iraq Inheritance.” That one of the report’s authors is Colin Kahl, a key Obama Iraq-policy advisor, is what makes the notion of “conditional engagement” important. Although the Obama campaign has not endorsed the study, it has, via various rhetorical nods and winks, signaled that it is heading in this direction.
As intellectually uncomfortable as it may be for staunch opponents of the Iraq War, such as this newspaper, to accept, the Center study grants that the surge policy of President George W. Bush has met with limited success. The gains, while fragile, are quantifiable.