Do trips to Iraq matter?

Any day now, Barack Obama will make his second trip to Iraq and his first visit to Afghanistan, hoping to bolster his foreign-policy credentials and disarm his critics. About time, the McCain campaign says. Others speculate on who Obama ought to see, and what he’ll likely be told. But I’m not sure how much it ...

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593911_080718_mccain5.jpg

Any day now, Barack Obama will make his second trip to Iraq and his first visit to Afghanistan, hoping to bolster his foreign-policy credentials and disarm his critics. About time, the McCain campaign says. Others speculate on who Obama ought to see, and what he'll likely be told. But I'm not sure how much it matters. Do trips to war zones really affect lawmakers' perspectives on the conflict?

McCain seems to think so, having suggested that his opponent will change positions on Iraq after meeting with General Petraeus and seeing the surge's success firsthand. But when surveying members of the Senate last summer for The Hill on who has and has not visited Iraq, I noticed that large numbers from both sides of the aisle have made trips, yet many remain steadfast in their support for or opposition to the war. Republicans, for example, often return calling for more time for the troops to secure military gains. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to argue for withdrawal in order to pressure the Iraqi government toward a political solution.

Rep. Jim Marshall noted this tendency in today's Washington Post:

Any day now, Barack Obama will make his second trip to Iraq and his first visit to Afghanistan, hoping to bolster his foreign-policy credentials and disarm his critics. About time, the McCain campaign says. Others speculate on who Obama ought to see, and what he’ll likely be told. But I’m not sure how much it matters. Do trips to war zones really affect lawmakers’ perspectives on the conflict?

McCain seems to think so, having suggested that his opponent will change positions on Iraq after meeting with General Petraeus and seeing the surge’s success firsthand. But when surveying members of the Senate last summer for The Hill on who has and has not visited Iraq, I noticed that large numbers from both sides of the aisle have made trips, yet many remain steadfast in their support for or opposition to the war. Republicans, for example, often return calling for more time for the troops to secure military gains. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to argue for withdrawal in order to pressure the Iraqi government toward a political solution.

Rep. Jim Marshall noted this tendency in today’s Washington Post:

If somebody has been a pessimist about this all along, would their pessimism evaporate? Not necessarily. . . . I’m trying to recall an epiphany,” Marshall said. “I can’t.

Part of the reason is that most trips are strictly limited to two days, and largely occupied by briefings from military leaders and diplomatic officials. It is often difficult for the junkets to give a true sense of how things are going on the ground, and drawing definite conclusions can backfire politically (recall McCain’s embarassing assertion that his heavily guarded trip to a Baghdad market last year was a sign of security and stability).

That said, the trips are still an important piece of the political puzzle. They are more than Sen. Jim Webb’s “dog and pony shows” characterization (note that two other would-be Obama veeps, Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed, are accompanying the candidate, not Webb). And while trips alone won’t change a candidate’s perspective, they can add some much needed credibility to his argument. When Obama returns from his trip and calls anew for withdrawing troops to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’ll be able to back it up, having seen things for himself on the ground.

UPDATE: John McCain says Obama will visit Iraq this weekend.

Patrick Fitzgerald is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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