Four political risks in marking the end of this phase in the Iraq saga

Four political risks in marking the end of this phase in the Iraq saga

The New York Times reports that the White House is putting the final touches on a roll-out plan to mark the end of this phase of the Iraq saga.

Apparently, the White House views this as an opportunity to score some political points and, properly managed, it probably will redound to the president’s political benefit, at least in the short run. But as I am quoted as saying in the piece, it is not without political risks. Whether the roll-out is a political plus next year may depend in part on how well the White House manages four key risks.

Risk 1: The danger of a disconnect between the present image and the future reality.

President Obama has repeatedly said that he has brought the Iraq war to a responsible close. Just how responsible a close it is depends on whether Iraq a year from now scores about as well on the following scale as it scores now: united, stable, peaceful, secure, democratic government that is an ally in the war on terror. Of course, we would like to see Iraq score even higher on all of those criteria, but from the point of view of the 2012 election, Obama will be doing well if Iraq does not backslide significantly on any one. While the White House arranges for a bunch of triumphant photo ops in the coming weeks, they would be well-served to remember that events on the ground in Iraq have a way of turning memorable moments from a short-term plus to a long-term negative.

Risk 2: The danger of a disconnect between the present image and the past record.

Candidate Obama talked to the American people about Iraq quite a bit. President Obama has talked about Iraq hardly at all. If what I have heard about the White House plans is correct, the President may do more high-profile, high impact Iraq messaging in the next three weeks than in the past three years combined. If the message pivot is too glaring, it will raise awkward comparisons. It may even raise unwelcome questions about Afghanistan, an ongoing war where the flagging public support might benefit from a bit more persuader-in-chief attention.

Risk 3: The danger of a disconnect between the way the president talks about the mission the troops completed and the way the troops themselves talk about it.

This administration has a strong record of promoting military issues when they can be presented in the "military as victim" frame. Thus, President Obama is quite eloquent and compelling when he talks about health care for wounded vets, keeping our promise to help vets adjust to post-combat civilian life, honoring the sacrifices of loved ones of fallen soldiers, and so on. These are important and legitimate issues to talk about, and given the high human costs of the Iraq war, it is an entirely appropriate lens through which to view the matter. But it is not the only appropriate lens, and at a time like this, it is also important to use another frame that is also fitting: the military as heroes who have accomplished something extraordinary. At tremendous cost, the military liberated Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and helped the Iraq people forge a new path forward. There were countless acts of heroism along the way and this new transition moment is a fit time to herald that heroism. If President Obama can talk about what the troops accomplish in a way that resonates with their own understanding, he will make an important contribution to civil-military relations. If he can not, then there are corresponding political risks.

Risk 4: The danger of a disconnect between partisan incentives and statesman responsibilities, especially as they touch on the previous administration and the president’s own political base.

One delicate political task confronting the White House as it plans the Iraq-related ceremonies concerns what to do and say about President Bush. The President’s base wants to hear from candidate Obama, to hear all of the partisan rhetoric about "stupid wars." The rest of the country, including key swing voters, probably would prefer to hear from head of state Obama, one that adopts a more elevated tone. The media will surely draw attention to President Bush, whether or not he is present at any ceremony, so the question will be put, figuratively if not literally: how does President Obama fit President Bush into the Iraq narrative? From a narrow political perspective, it will be a very tricky matter to talk (or not talk) about Bush in a way that does not annoy either his base or the rest of the country.

None of these risks is unmanageable. A deft political operation should be able to mitigate them, if they are wise enough to recognize them.