Obama’s Plan B on Iraq

First things first. A total American withdrawal from Iraq – all 39,500 troops - is not what President Obama wanted. The White House and Iraqi government had been talking for months about keeping several thousand U.S. troops there to keep an eye on things. A tripwire force if you will, not unlike the troops America has garrisoned in Korea. As recently as Monday, Leon Panetta, the new Defense Secretary, said he hoped there would be an agreement.

But the Iraqi government had had enough of the Americans. Abu Ghraib, Blackwater and all the rest. It wanted us out. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to grant any U.S. troops immunity for their actions – and that was the deal breaker.

Thus Plan B: the president’s appearance in the White House briefing room announcing a total pullout (except for security contractors) by the end of the year.

So on some level the White House is being disingenuous about all this.  But most Americans, preoccupied with the economy, don’t know or probably don’t care about this; they only see the headline or tweet that we’re out – and in a tough campaign, that’s just fine with the White House.

It’s also fine by them that the announcement came just 24 hours after Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, “the mad dog of the Middle East,” as Ronald Reagan famously branded him, met his demise. Two historic Mideast milestones in as many days allows the administration to change the narrative, albeit briefly, away from the economy - the one issue that Americans DO care about – and towards something the president at this juncture would prefer to talk about: his tough guy foreign policy. 

So the question is: What does this mean for the president? And what about 2012?

Iraq is clearly the big-ticket item here. The second longest war in American history (only Afghanistan has lasted longer) and the second most expensive one (at $808 billion, it trails only World War II, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service), President Obama can now say he delivered on one of the biggest promises he made in 2008: to end what he said was a huge mistake by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

By the way, it may very well be that were it not for Iraq, Barack Obama might still be the junior Senator from Illinois.  His well-known opposition to the war, combined with Hillary Clinton’s awkward explanation as to why she voted for it, helped thrust Obama into the limelight four years ago. He vowed to end the war, and disingenuous though the ending may be (wars are usually harder to end then start of course) end it he has.

Promise made. Promise kept. This is good stuff for any politician.

But whether the pending withdrawal from Iraq is good policy, of course, is far from certain. Republicans have already decided that it’s not. John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, calls the Iraq pullout “a harmful and sad setback…which will be viewed as a strategic victory for our enemies.” Mitt Romney, likely to be the GOP’s choice next year, blasts it as an “astonishing failure” that “has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.” The hypersensitive White House “Attack Watch” team (yes, there is such a thing folks), issued a quick response: "Mitt Romney’s foreign policy experience is limited to his work as a finance executive shipping American jobs overseas." Meow.

Ditto to a lesser extent Libya. “We did what we set out to do,” the president said Thursday. He reminded reporters that Qadhafi was taken down “without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground,” and that by working “together as an international community…we are able to leverage greater resources, more effectiveness, at lower cost.”

But Libya, although it appears to have ended successfully, is also a target of Republican criticism. Among the GOP’s complaints: letting the British and French do much of the heavy lifting, with the U.S. playing something of a supporting role. The administration had a phrase for this: “leading from behind.” Republicans called it something else: weakness and an unconscionable abrogation of America’s traditional role as the world’s only superpower (by the way, these Republicans who were unhappy about the French stepping up – aren’t they the same ones who called the French pansies for their hesitancy to get involved in Iraq?) Just asking.

In the last few months alone, Osama bin-Laden, Anwar Awlaki, and now Muammar Qadhafi are all gone because of decisions made in one form or another by President Obama. This, combined with extending certain Bush-era policies – indefinite detention of prisoners and renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act for example – make it awfully hard for Republicans to argue that Mr. Obama lacks a spine when it comes to national security.

Still not convinced? Then consider something else lost amid this week’s momentous news. In Pakistan, Secretary of State Clinton, accompanied by CIA chief David Petraeus and others, said the U.S. would keep bombing the terrorist Haqqani network that is linked to numerous attacks on Americans in Afghanistan – and supported, Washington claims, by elements of the Pakistani government. You can help or you can hinder, Clinton bluntly told her hosts. Drone attacks are up sharply on Mr. Obama’s watch – no one should doubt his willingness to keep using them.

In the wake of these foreign policy developments, the president will enjoy a bump in the polls. But if his bin-Laden bounce is any judge, it is will be modest and short-lived. In the aftermath of the raid on Abbottabad - “One of the most courageous calls - decisions - that I think I’ve ever seen a president make,” said former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served many of them - Mr. Obama quickly jumped from 42% to 50% in the Gallup poll. But with 9.1% unemployment weighing on Americans’ minds, it was back to 42% by mid-July.

From an electoral standpoint, Republicans should be thankful for that 9.1%. Shovel-ready jobs, the “recovery summer” and all the rest – that number was supposed to be much lower by now. In fact, it wasn’t even supposed to go above 8%, the administration vowed. Promise made. Promise not kept. And that, of course, is the albatross that may send Mr. Obama packing next year. But it certainly isn’t “weakness” on the national security front.

-Paul Brandus at the White House