Obama is ducking a public debate of America’s wars
By Peter Feaver How should we interpret President Obama’s much-leaked Iraq announcement? Perhaps we should begin by thinking about the leaks themselves. Were they orchestrated leaks designed to affect the way the story was covered? They resulted in above the fold coverage in the New York Times — this on the day when the news ...
By Peter Feaver
How should we interpret President Obama’s much-leaked Iraq announcement? Perhaps we should begin by thinking about the leaks themselves. Were they orchestrated leaks designed to affect the way the story was covered?
They resulted in above the fold coverage in the New York Times — this on the day when the news story was supposed to be Obama’s first State of the Union address. Since Obama’s State of the Union speech had nothing important to say on Iraq, this was not a traditional roll-out of a new initiative, where the aides prep the press with leaks and the president delivers the Big News. Rather, this was a roll-out (or a leak-out) of a policy that had nothing whatsoever to do with the big news of the day.
So was the intention to rob the State of the Union of some of its limelight? Or was it instead designed to get Iraq news out but to bury it with the high-drama State of the Union that will necessarily dominate all talk shows?
I am told by someone I trust who should know that the White House definitely did not want it to leach out this way, but from out here in the boonies, it sure has the look of the White House deliberately stepping on its own Iraq news.
If so, this would not the first time the White House has done a war policy roll-out like this. Last week, they announced a major escalation in Afghanistan — in percentage terms, an increase in troops that eclipsed President Bush’s surge in Iraq — and they did it without having completed their Afghanistan policy review. So they had an escalation without a strategy. Of relevance to today’s topic, unless I missed it, I believe this major announcement was made via a White House press release. No presidential live statement. No live statement from Secretary Gates or Admiral Mullen. That was a White House deliberately stepping on its own Afghanistan news.
These are all familiar time-honored tactics to old Washington hands, and the folks on this blog have used them in the past. This is the way Washington has always worked, and so we should not be surprised or dismayed that the Obama team is just doing business as usual.
Except, in one important way, this is not business as usual. Usually, White Houses use these gimmicks to bury bad news, such as awkward facts about tax delinquent cabinet appointees. Instead, if this is gimmickry, it is muting public discussion about the two most important wartime decisions the commander-in-chief has made so far.
My interpretation is that Obama is primarily worried about critiques from his left. The Afghan decision has been criticized by the extreme left fringe. And the Iraq decision might also be controversial if it was subject to close scrutiny. Could this be an Obama version of a modified limited hangout intended to frame the discussion in a way that will minimize tough questioning?
So far, it has done that. The initial coverage of the pending Iraq move has been exactly what the Obama team might wish for. Peter Baker and Elizabeth Bumiller set the tone in today’s Times by generously describing this as roughly a fulfillment of President Obama’s election promises — a mere 3 month extension, a Solomonic division of the baby between the Obama proposal and the Petraeus/Odierno proposal. They don’t dwell on the awkward fact that Obama’s original 16 month deadline actually elapsed in April 2008. The new deadline is 28 months after the date when Obama originally proposed the war should end. The Times story touches only very lightly on the contradictions between, on the one hand "ending the war" and "pulling out all the troops," and on the other hand, leaving behind tens of thousands of troops, including combat troops engaged in hunting and killing Al Qaeda in Iraq cells. And the story had not a single evaluative (let alone critical) comment, from the left or the right.
Baker and Bumiller are pros and, in the normal course of things, would want to subject this story to more careful scrutiny. But my guess is they had to bang this one out under deadline while one ear was cocked listening to the State of the Union address. In any case, the deed is done. The frame is "Obama keeps his campaign promise" rather than "Obama continues the Bush policy."
One important caveat: the foregoing analysis is based on my read that the decision is basically an embrace of the pathway outlined in the Status of Forces Agreement that Bush negotiated last year and that all of the wiggle room and hedging that Petraeus and Odierno have asked for are in fact hidden in the actual policy. I have reason to suspect that, but we will only know for sure when more reporting is done. If I am wrong on that point, then Obama’s decision is even more consequential and the roll-out gimmick (if it was one) even more dubious.
Which leads me to one important warning: this is a dangerous way to manage the public debate over both wars. Public support for seeing the Iraq war through to the successful conclusion of its current trajectory is achievable, but not certain. It will take Presidential leadership. Surprisingly more difficult, I suspect, will be preserving public support for the Afghan part of the broader war. That, too, will take a lot of presidential leadership. I will have more to say on that topic soon. But for now the takeaway is that President Obama will probably have to put a bit more effort into selling both his Iraq and Afghanistan policies than his roll-outs have provided thus far.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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