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Will Obama Really Withdraw from Iraq?

Will Obama Really Withdraw from Iraq?

By Gregory Scoblete - July 28, 2008

A recurring theme in Barack Obama's foreign policy fusillade against John McCain is that while McCain is mired in tactics, Obama deals in the loftier realm of strategy. Any vindication that McCain reaps from his early advocacy of the Iraq troop surge is undermined, Obama has argued, by his strategic miscalculation in supporting the war in 2002.

Yet Obama has undermined his own arguments for withdrawing from Iraq by talking strategy and not interests. Instead, he has presented an untenable straddle - disavowing the war while simultaneously reaffirming the panoply of U.S. interests in the region that have made leaving Iraq seem so vexing.

The only way for Obama to truly deliver on his pledge to "end the war" in Iraq is to sketch out a new American compact with the Middle East - one that breaks fairly radically with the conventions of the past. This is not the same as promising bargaining instead of bombs and bluster, or arguing, as Obama has frequently done, that our resources are more urgently needed elsewhere. Rather, it is about recasting the debate over Iraq and the Middle East from what is the "responsible" thing to do to a debate about what we are responsible for.

America's interests in the Middle East can be broadly defined as the pursuit of four goals: the secure transit of oil from the Gulf, the security of Israel, the maintenance of American preeminence and regional stability. America has pursued these goals through a mixture of policies - coups, patronage, diplomacy, and military force - aimed at managing and shaping, to the extent possible, political outcomes in the region.

Iraq sits squarely, and for Obama, uncomfortably, at the intersection of these professed interests. In an era of tight oil supplies, Iraq possesses huge reserves with direct access to the Persian Gulf. Though the U.S. troop surge has stabilized the country, those gains are, to quote General Petraeus "reversible." The prospect of instability, beginning in Iraq and radiating beyond its borders, remains a potent concern.

Even under Obama's own optimistic scenario we will leave an Iraqi capital friendly, if not openly allied, with Tehran. The one serious rival to America's regional preeminence and the most urgent threat to the security of Israel will therefore be strengthened.

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may. The only way to convincingly argue on behalf of ending the war is to mount an argument in favor of fundamentally redefining America's interests in the region. Short of that, any proposal for withdrawal will be hostage to the persistent specter of regional instability.

John McCain understands this. He has frequently noted that Obama's strategy would mean that the U.S. would have to "re-invade" Iraq to clean up the resultant chaos left in our wake.

Obama too has acknowledged this presumed obligation, albeit tacitly. He has said that he would retain an unspecified number of residual forces in Iraq for an unspecified length of time. He has stressed that we would be as "careful getting out as we were careless getting in" and that any withdrawal would be conditioned on events on the ground.

He even suggested in a speech in Washington D.C. earlier this month, that only when we "press the Iraqis to stand up" by steadily removing U.S. troops, will a stable Iraq emerge. Rather than subordinate other interests in the region, Obama has positioned his withdrawal plan as a means of advancing them.

It's easy to see how quickly this position can be challenged. If you accept that there is a level of internal Iraqi violence that would compel the U.S. to remain in Iraq, if you accept the basic principle that America has to ensure regional stability, then all promises to "end the war" are suspect.

For many, Obama's reluctance to challenge the current principles of America's involvement in the Middle East is a reassuring "move to the center." To others, it is a reminder of how narrow the debate on foreign policy really is. Rather than debate the ends of American policy, we debate the means.

Such a narrow debate is one of the unintended consequences of America's Cold War victory. A broad, bi-partisan agreement on the nature of U.S. interests and the threat posed to them by the Soviet Union was vital - it allowed the United States to consistently contain communism even as presidential administrations (and thus tactics) changed.

Much like this consensus, our interests in the Middle East are largely derived from the Cold War era, when American power-balancing was necessary to reduce Soviet influence. Rather than adjust those interests when the threat from global communism disappeared, Washington remained content with the status quo. Today, our presidential candidates debate the utility of their policies in advancing agreed upon interests. They debate within the status quo.

It needn't be so. Rather than fashion himself as simply a "post racial" candidate, Obama could fashion himself as a "post Cold War" candidate, willing to realign America's foreign policy in response to the world as we find it today. Indeed, in the spirit of bi-partisanship and consistent with his theme of change, Obama could lift a number of center-right arguments to advance a new definition of American interests in the Middle East - one that would allow him to remove troops from Iraq even if such a move would increase instability.

He could, for instance, echo the arguments made by Edward Luttwak from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the British magazine Prospect, and argue that "We devote far too much attention to the Middle East, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created...." Rather, he wrote, "with neither invasions nor friendly engagements, the peoples of the Middle East should finally be allowed to have their own history."

Anticipating the most common objection to a more hands-off approach to the Middle East, Obama could then borrow from the CATO Institute's Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren and argue that there is no need for the U.S. to "defend the oil." Indeed, he would call such a policy what it really is: an egregious wealth transfer. "Because Middle-Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil," wrote Taylor and Van Doren, "they must secure and sell oil to remain viable. Given that their economies are so heavily dependent upon oil revenues, Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than do consuming states to worry about the security of oil production facilities, ports, and shipping lanes. In short, whatever security our presence provides... could be provided by incumbent producers were the United States to withdraw."

In other words, rather than pocket our defense outlays and spend their own money on indoor ski slopes and the distribution of text books describing Jews and Christians as "apes," the Gulf monarchs should assume responsibility for their own commodity.

Obama could even, in an ironic twist, lift the rhetoric from President Bush and the neoconservative movement (circa 2002, at least) and argue that purchasing stability in the Gulf through its autocratic rulers is a devil's bargain that will only result in more terrorism.

So far, at least, Obama has opted to make a more muddled argument. He wants out of Iraq, but is disinclined to challenge our traditional role in the region. He appears to accept the late Lord Palmerston's axiom that a nation has "permanent" interests. If that is indeed the case, then the majority of Americans who wish to see the war wound down on the next president's watch may well be disappointed.

Gregory Scoblete is an editor at RealClearWorld.

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