Chess vs Checkers: Iraq, National Security and the Presidential Candidates

In the tit-for-tat, he-said she-said world of modern presidential campaigns, it is rare for a candidate to ask Americans to take a step back and think strategically about the national security problems facing the United States. This week, however, Barack Obama did exactly that, offering the strongest evidence yet that he is a more capable strategic thinker than John McCain.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech on Tuesday, Obama took a giant leap toward institutionalizing his long-running commitment to end the war in Iraq. In the key portion of his remarks, Obama said:

At some point, a judgment must be made. Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we don’t have unlimited resources to try to make it one. We are not going to kill every al Qaeda sympathizer, eliminate every trace of Iranian influence, or stand up a flawless democracy before we leave – General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker acknowledged this to me when they testified last April. That is why the accusation of surrender is false rhetoric used to justify a failed policy. In fact, true success in Iraq – victory in Iraq – will not take place in a surrender ceremony where an enemy lays down their arms. True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future – a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge. That is an achievable goal if we pursue a comprehensive plan to press the Iraqis stand up.

Obama is offering concrete objectives for the United States in Iraq, along with a realistic vision for what the endgame might look like. As he said, there is never going to be any kind of “surrender ceremony,” regardless of how often John McCain tosses around politically-charged words like “defeat” and “retreat.”

Obama went on from there to discuss his plans for winding down the war, including his willingness to “make tactical adjustments as we implement this strategy” and “consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government.” This willingness to refine his policies means that Obama could actually bring most U.S. combat brigades home sooner than the 16 months he has estimated it will take, if accelerated withdrawal was determined to be an acceptable course of action.

Finally, Obama reiterated his plan to leave residual U.S. forces in Iraq in order to perform specific missions, such as targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, protecting American diplomats, and training Iraqi Security Forces. This concept of an “over-the-horizon” residual force in Iraq has been a staple of Democratic proposals for years now. Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Carl Levin of Michigan have repeatedly included residual forces in their legislative proposals to end the war. Some military experts question the wisdom of a residual presence, however, because they argue that a small number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be attractive targets for insurgents.

Forced to respond to his rival’s major address, McCain chose to criticize Obama for articulating his Iraq strategy before his scheduled trip to the country this summer. “In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy,” McCain said. McCain apparently thinks his trip to Iraq last year – where 100 soldiers in armored Humvees redirected traffic so McCain could be escorted around a Baghdad market in a bullet-proof vest while attack helicopters circled overhead – is a realistic way to assess the facts on the ground.

In response to another question on Tuesday, McCain said, “Today we know Sen. Obama was wrong. The ‘surge’ has succeeded.” This short sentiment, which could perhaps be translated as “Mission Accomplished for The Surge,” constitutes McCain’s favorite talking point on the war. It also clearly demonstrates McCain’s ongoing conflation of military tactics with military strategy.

General David Petraeus’s tactical adjustments have enabled U.S. troops to reduce violence in targeted geographical areas of Iraq. However, limited military management will never lead to the type of World War II-style “victory” bandied about in our political discourse. Short of permanently occupying or totally destroying and rebuilding Iraq, as was the case in Germany, Japan, and South Korea – examples McCain frequently offers as models – America’s ability to construct an oasis of democracy in the Middle East at the butt of a gun is a mirage.

Political events in Iraq continue to possess an internal momentum that the United States is unable to definitively influence. Kurdish lawmakers this week walked out of the Iraqi Parliament to protest a draft provincial election law. Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 elections, are still isolated from the decision-making process, which makes reform efforts impossible because the elected Parliament is not currently representative. American calls for the passage of key pieces of legislation have gone mostly unmet, with Iraqi lawmakers content to operate on Baghdad’s clock, not Washington’s. The referendum over the status of Kirkuk has been repeatedly postponed due to intractable differences between the contending parties’ bargaining positions.

Most ominously, the predominately Sunni sahwa movement, known as the “Sons of Iraq,” is having its integration into the regular Iraqi Security Forces delayed or ignored by the Shiite-dominated central government. This has led to frustration in the sahwas, and may soon lead members to conclude that the $300 dollars a month paid by the United States just isn’t worth it. The loss of cooperation with the sahwas – isolated, angry, and 90,000 strong – would leave a disgruntled and well-armed Sunni army in place ready to fight its Shiite enemies.

What McCain doesn’t seem to understand, but Obama clearly does, is that the United States must not allow a divided Iraqi government to determine the timetable for U.S. withdrawal. The President must do what is in the best interests of the United States and make the difficult strategic choices, not hide behind commanders like General Petraeus and defer to them on key decisions. Doing so is a subversion of civilian control of the military, a time-honored principle in American government.

The purpose of the surge, as President Bush said, was to provide breathing space for Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation. Tactical military successes under the surge are to be applauded, but political results are the ultimate objective. Lacking political progress, the United States is simply surging to nowhere.

Iraqi hearts and minds have never been with the United States, and they will never be, no matter how many troops we commit or sahwa movements we fund. Iraqis must develop an allegiance to a representative government capable of compromising to achieve political reconciliation. As long as U.S. forces remain in the country, Iraqis will remain focused on expelling the occupier, not developing allegiance to their government.

Barack Obama demonstrated this week that he is thinking several moves ahead on the chessboard in Iraq. John McCain seems content to remind us how great he is at checkers.

Travis Sharp is the Military Policy Analyst at the Council for a Livable World in Washington, D.C. and is an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.