Barack Obama needs to give a speech about Iraq. Otherwise he will find himself in the unusual position of having being prescient about the war in 2002 and yet being overtaken by events in 2008. The most important reason to do this is not political. Iraq is fading in importance for the public and, to the extent that it matters as an electoral issue, most people agree with Obama's judgment that the war was not worth fighting.
The reason to lay out his approach to Iraq is that, were he elected, the war would be his biggest and most immediate problem. He will need to implement a serious policy on Iraq, one that is consistent with his long-held views but is also informed by the conditions on the ground today. This is what he should say:
"In six months, on Jan. 20, 2009, we will have a new president. But it is not clear that we will chart a new course in the ongoing war in Iraq. Senator McCain has promised a continuation of the Bush strategy—to stay in Iraq with no horizon in sight, with no benchmarks or metrics that would tell us when American troops can come home. In 2006, when levels of violence were horrifyingly high, President Bush and Senator McCain said that things were going so badly that if we left, the consequences would be tragic. Today they say that things are going so well that if we leave, the consequences would be tragic. Whatever the conditions, the answer is the same—keep doing what we're doing. How does one say 'Catch-22' in Arabic?
"I start from a different premise. I believe that the Iraq War was a major strategic blunder. It diverted us from the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan—the people who launched the attacks of 9/11 and who remain powerful and active today. We face threats in Iraq, but the two greatest ones, as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have testified, are Al Qaeda (which is wounded but not dead) and Iran. Both are a direct consequence of the invasion. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before 2003, and Iran's influence has expanded massively since then.
"And then there are the more tangible costs. The war has resulted in over 4,000 U.S. combat deaths, four times as many grievously wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths. Over 2 million Iraqis have fled the country and 2 million more have been displaced within the country. The price tag in dollars has also been staggering. In the last five years, the United States has spent close to $1 trillion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That is enough money to rebuild every school, bridge and road in America, create universal health care and fund several Manhattan Projects in alternative energy. Whatever benefits the invasion of Iraq might produce, it cannot justify these expenditures in lives and treasure.
"But these costs have already been paid. Nothing we can do today, in June 2008, can reduce those expenditures or bring back to life those brave people. We have to look at the situation we're in now and ask, what can we do to create the best possible outcome at an acceptable cost? Economists warn us not to dwell on 'sunk costs' and, while painful, we must move beyond the mistakes of the past and focus on the possibilities of the future.
"The surge has produced a considerable decline in violence in Iraq. General Petraeus has accomplished this by using more troops and fighting differently. Perhaps more crucially, he reached out and made a strategic accommodation with many Sunni groups that had once fought U.S. troops. To put it bluntly, he talked to our enemies. These reversals of strategy have had the effect of creating what General Petraeus calls 'breathing space' for political reconciliation. And he has always said that without political progress in Iraq, military efforts will not produce any lasting success.
"He is right. All today's gains could disappear when American troops leave—and they will have to leave one day. The disagreement I have with the Bush administration is that it seems to believe that time will magically make these gains endure. It won't. Without political progress, once the United States reduces its forces, the old mistrust and the old militias will rise up again. Only genuine political power-sharing will create a government and an Army that are seen as national and not sectarian. And that, in turn, is the only path to make Iraq viable without a large American military presence.
"In recent months there has been some movement on the reconciliation long promised by the Bush administration. It remains piecemeal and limited—nothing like the new national compact that the Maliki government promised two years ago—but I welcome the gains. It is encouraging to see the Iraqi government act against Shiite militias in Basra and Sadr City, which sends a signal that they will be equal-opportunity enforcers of the law.
"More needs to happen. Militias remain powerful in many parts of Iraq. The Sunni tribes that have switched sides must have their members enrolled in the armed forces and police (a process that has moved very slowly so far). Constitutional discussions that have been postponed again and again need to take place soon.
"I have often said that we cannot give a blank check to the Iraq government. And I believe that congressional pressure—the growing frustration of Democrats and Republicans—was an important factor in getting the Iraqi leadership to start moving on outstanding political issues. I believe that we must continue to keep that pressure on the government in Baghdad. The best pressure remains the threat of troop withdrawals. But the obvious corollary is that were the Iraqi government to take decisive action, we should support it by altering the pace of our drawdown. I have set as a target the reduction of U.S. forces at one to two brigades a month, starting in early 2009. Were the Iraqi government to make significant political progress and request a pause in this timetable, and were General Petraeus to support this request, I would give it serious consideration.
"My objective remains to end American combat involvement in Iraq and to do so expeditiously. At some point we are going to have to take off the training wheels in Iraq. I believe that we must have a serious plan that defines when that point is reached. If we define success as an Iraq that looks like France or Holland, we will have to stay indefinitely, continue spending $10 billion a month and keep 140,000 troops in combat. And that is neither acceptable nor sustainable. We will have to accept as success a muddy middle ground—an Iraq that is a functioning, federal democracy with a central government and an army able to tackle the bulk of challenges they face. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have themselves said that no matter what success we achieve, there will remain some Al Qaeda presence in Iraq and some Iranian influence, since Iran is a neighbor.
"I have been a longstanding opponent of the Iraq War. But I am a passionate supporter of the Iraqi people. They deserve a decent future after decades of tyranny and five years of chaos. The United States must continue its assistance and engagement with Iraq on a whole range of issues—economic, administrative and security-related. We owe the Iraqi people this, and we hope to maintain a friendship with them for decades. I have always said that I would not withdraw troops precipitously, nor do I insist that we will draw down to zero. If circumstances require, we will have a small presence in the country to fight Al Qaeda, train the Iraqi Army, protect American interests and provide humanitarian assistance. But it will be small and it will be temporary—which is also as the Iraqi people seem to wish.
Another significant difference between Senator McCain and me is that I would couple the reduction in our military forces in Iraq with a diplomatic surge, not just to push the Iraqis to make deals, but also to get its neighbors more productively involved in Iraq. It is a sign of our neglect of diplomacy that today, five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, only two Arab governments have pledged to name an ambassador to Baghdad. Iraq is not an island. It is a founding member of the Arab League and a crucial country in the Persian Gulf. We need to engage with all Iraq's neighbors—including Syria and Iran—to create a lasting political stability that is supported in the region.
"But finally, I would return to my original concerns. General Petraeus has successfully executed the task he was given, to shore up a collapsing situation in Iraq. But his responsibility was Iraq. His new area of operation stretches from the Arab world into Pakistan and Afghanistan. There lie the most dangerous and immediate threats to American security. The Taliban is enjoying its greatest resurgence since 9/11. Former U.S. commander Gen. Dan McNeill has said we need at least two more combat brigades to fight it. But there are literally no brigades to spare because of our massive commitment in Iraq.
"The president of the United States is responsible not just for Iraq, not just for the Middle East and West Asia, but for America's interests across the globe. We must make our commitment in Iraq one that is limited, temporary and thus sustainable. And we must also be aware that there is a much larger world out there, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Iran's growing ambitions, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, an obstructionist Venezuela. All these require attention. The test of a commander in chief is not to focus obsessively on one battlefield but to keep all of them in view and to use resources and tactics in a way that creates an overall grand strategy, one that keeps the American people safe and the world at peace."