Friday, August 1, 2008

In May, our organization - the largest group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in America - urged Sen. Barack Obama to visit Iraq. Our argument was simple. The presumptive Democratic nominee had only taken the time to visit the war zone once since coming to the Senate - more than two years ago and before the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as commander there and the shift in strategy known as the surge.

Our hope, as veterans, was that Mr. Obama would take the time to listen to our commanders and our fellow troops on the ground, to see firsthand the hard-won gains they have achieved, and then consider how he might revise or refine his approach to the war and close the gap between his rhetoric and reality on the ground.

To his credit, Mr. Obama initially suggested that he would do exactly this. Unfortunately, he was immediately and furiously attacked for doing so by anti-war groups like that fueled his campaign’s rise. Rather than showing the political courage to stand up to his base, Mr. Obama instead quickly appeased them.

As a result, rather than going to Iraq, talking to Gen. Petraeus, assessing the facts on the ground and then announcing his new strategy, Mr. Obama instead delivered a high-profile speech before he left for Iraq, in which he announced what his conclusions would be.

Mr. Obama’s increasingly evasive statements about Iraq, both pre- and post-trip, raise far more questions than they answer, including his ability to lead our nation forward as commander-in-chief and bring this war to a successful conclusion.

After months of furiously denying that security was improving in Iraq, Mr. Obama now acknowledges that a remarkable turnaround took place under the surge - and yet bizarrely, he continues to insist that he was right to oppose the surge and that, if given the chance, he would do so again.

Mr. Obama likewise at last acknowledges that our military commanders on the ground in Iraq oppose the fixed and arbitrary timeline for withdrawal he wants to impose and they say doing so would be “extremely dangerous” - and yet he continues to insist that he will impose it on them anyway.

Most frustrating of all, Mr. Obama says that he thinks our troops have performed admirably in Iraq - and yet he and his surrogates continue to downplay their sacrifices by suggesting at every opportunity that the hard-won gains we see in Iraq are not due to their efforts, and indeed, would have materialized in their absence.

What are we to make of this? For starters, whatever Mr. Obama did during his brief visit to Iraq, “fact finding” was scarcely part of it. It appears that his stage-managed trip was, in many respects, the Democratic equivalent to President Bush’s choreographed landing on an aircraft carrier five years ago.

Indeed, when Mr. Obama had the opportunity to visit our troops stationed in Germany, he declined to do so, saying it would be “inappropriate.” The only difference? At the U.S. bases in Germany, he couldn’t bring the TV cameras along.

Whatever Mr. Obama’s conduct, it in no way diminishes Americans’ right to know more about the facts in Iraq. And in the absence of an honest assessment from the Democratic front-runner, we’ll do it ourselves.

To that end, the undersigned eight Iraq war veterans will be returning to Iraq next week to assess the situation on the ground, top to bottom. We will each return to the cities where we served previously, providing a direct before-and-after assessment from the ground. Places like Ramadi, Baqubah, Samarra, and Baghdad, last experienced at the height of violence, will get a fresh look from experienced eyes.

We will assess the depths and sustainability of recent gains, and plan to objectively ask the tough questions - of Americans and Iraqis alike - about the future of America’s involvement in Iraq. Questions will include: What would happen if American forces were ordered to withdraw from Iraq on a fixed, 16-month timeline, as Mr. Obama has proposed? How do Iraqis view the upcoming provincial elections? And what is required of the United States to ensure that these elections are a success? In neighborhoods devastated by sectarian warfare, are displaced people returning and is reconstruction under way? Is the Iraqi government stepping up to take responsibility for the rebuilding of the country? Are we confident that the blows we have inflicted against al Qaeda and Iranian-proxies are irreversible? What do ordinary Iraqis say about the future of these dangerous groups? And most important of all: Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to “end” the war in Iraq, but he refuses to say whether he thinks we can achieve the goal that our troops have been so doggedly fighting for - namely, winning the war. Can we now speak in terms of victory and if so, what does it mean?

America’s veterans, their families and those still serving deserve honest answers to these difficult and complex questions. We intend to do our utmost to provide them.

Pete Hegseth, David Bellavia, Joel Arends, Erik Swabb, Kate Norley, Shawn Bryan, Daniel Bell, and Ben Hayden are veterans of the Iraq war and members of Vets for Freedom.

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