Marc Lynch

Those two months made all the difference

I agree with Dan Drezner that the most amazing thing about Obama’s Iraqi plan may be that it appears to command such wide-spread support and has been received with a collective yawn from the assembled punditry class.  This is particularly amazing because if you ignore the spin, the plan he announced yesterday is virtually identical ...

I agree with Dan Drezner that the most amazing thing about Obama’s Iraqi plan may be that it appears to command such wide-spread support and has been received with a collective yawn from the assembled punditry class.  This is particularly amazing because if you ignore the spin, the plan he announced yesterday is virtually identical to the one he presented throughout the election campaign. The only real difference is the move from 16 months to 18 months in the timetable. Was all that sturm and drang over the last year and half really about two months?  As someone who was deeply involved in the Obama campaign’s Iraq policy team, let’s just say that this is not exactly how I remember the debate.

Besides those fateful two months, most everything else is the same: the fixed timeline, the focus on the shift to Iraqi responsibility, the residual force, the limited goals, the regional perspective which includes engaging Syria and Iran. The question of the pace of withdrawals looks like a change but really isn’t, since that was never defined with great specificity.  The campaign plan always allowed for tactical adjustments on timing and pace within the broader strategic commitment to a timetable for withdrawal, and Obama always spoke of consulting with commanders on the ground.   "As careful getting out as we were careless getting in", went the mantra.  Personally,  I am still worried that going too slow in 2009 will loop us right back into a debate about the fragility of the situation come early 2010 (and hopefully the shortening calendar will encourage Iraqis will listen to U.S. pressure to actually hold those national elections in 2009).  I’ll be watching that closely.  But you have to start somewhere, and Obama’s speech gave a crystal clear signal of where he wants it to end. 

The process has really been amazing to watch.  Obama consulted widely, commissioned a whole range of strategic reviews, and listened carefully to the commanders on the ground.  And the result was that he built a wide internal and public consensus for essentially the same policy which not too terribly long ago was viewed in polite circles as irresponsible, naive, and reckless. The SOFA certainly helped in this regard, since it had already committed Bush and the U.S. military to the principle of withdrawal. But still, watching Republicans and the Washington Post editorial page falling over themselves to associate themselves with what is essentially the same Iraq withdrawal plan they used to savage is a sight to behold — if it was just two months that made the difference, think of all the trouble we could have saved ourselves!    Anyway, that’s good politics and good policy alike.  Maybe the guy should run for president or something… 

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