A top defense adviser to Barack Obama is recommending that significant “residual” U.S. military forces remain in Iraq to ensure its stability, an emerging policy shift that is angering the Democratic Party’s anti-war left and has Republicans charging “flip-flop.”
As the level of violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq and receded as a top issue in the 2008 presidential election, the Obama campaign and its advisers are sending what Democratic defense analysts describe as “tantalizing hints” that his troop withdrawal plan will be far more flexible and gradual than his earlier calls for a complete pullout regardless of the situation on the ground.
“Rather than unilaterally and unconditionally withdrawing from Iraq and hoping the international community will fill the void and push the Iraqis toward accommodation - a very unlikely scenario - the United States must embrace a policy of ‘conditional engagement,’” writes Colin Kahl, a leading national security scholar at Georgetown University who is the chief coordinator of the Obama campaign’s working group on Iraq policy.
“This approach would couple a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation,” Mr. Kahl writes in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Kahl told The Washington Times that his article and similar proposals in previous papers reflect his own views and do not necessarily represent the position of the presumptive Democratic nominee. But other Democratic foreign policy analysts say that statements by Mr. Kahl and the senator’s other advisers signaled the kind of advice he is getting - and considering - as he prepares for a fact-finding trip to Iraq later this summer.
The Iraq policy working group Mr. Kahl heads is made up of about two dozen people who include academics and former government and military officials, many from the Clinton administration. It includes foreign policy adviser Susan E. Rice, an assistant secretary of state under President Clinton; Richard J. Danzig, secretary of the Navy under Mr. Clinton; and Sarah Sewell, deputy assistant secretary of defense under Mr. Clinton.
Other Obama advisers have similarly differed with the freshman senator’s plan to withdraw all combat forces over a period of 16 months.
Samantha Power, Mr. Obama’s former foreign policy adviser, told the British Broadcasting Corp. in March that “You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. senator. He will rely upon a plan … that pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now.”
Mr. Obama revealed Monday in an interview with the Military Times that he was now rethinking his unilateral call for a complete military pullout. Instead, he said any withdrawal would be “in a deliberate fashion, in consultation with the Iraqi government, at a pace that is determined in consultation with General [David H.] Petraeus and the other commanders on the ground.”
“If, on the other hand, you’ve got a deteriorating situation for some reason, then that’s going to have to be taken into account,” he said.
The Illinois Democrat appeared to be wavering on his Iraq pullout plan when he told reporters in Montana last week that he was in the process of making changes in his withdrawal policy. “When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I am sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies,” Mr. Obama said.
Sen. John McCain’s camp immediately pounced on that statement, saying his “changed course” proved “his past positions to be just empty words,” showing “once again that his words do not matter.”
“It’s clear Obama is rightly trying to reverse the central premise of his campaign: his pledge to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq,” said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs dropped further hints of a more gradual withdrawal strategy Monday, telling CNN, “Obviously you have to give commanders on the ground flexibility. We’d be crazy not to.”
Signals of a coming change on his Iraq policy, plus shifts on other positions he has staked out in the primaries, have infuriated many of his leading liberal supporters in the past week.