The sound bite presidential campaign of Barack Obama — working to transform itself into the sound bite presidency of Barack Obama — delivers a puzzling judgment on the Iraq war. It is that the war, to quote Obama, has "made the American people less safe."
We heard it again during the rhetorical run-up to Gen. David Petraeus’ latest debriefing to Congress concerning the war and will certainly hear it for a while longer. This, despite the lack of intellectual underpinning for the assertion. In other words, huh? "Less safe" how? More exposed — or something — to World Trade Center-style terror?
Policy by sound bite, inevitable as it may seem in the Internet Age, has its drawbacks, one of those being the potential to cloud the general grasp of reality. A little nuance might not come amiss in assessments of our present Iraq policy.
No Obama speech ever reckons with the complexity if what, I dare say, any of us would categorize as the Iraq mess. No, it’s always: "I was against it," "we got tricked," "let’s get out." And we’re "less safe." Yes — you think about it that way all the time, don’t you?
To the war’s defenders — I don’t mean apologists, I mean defenders of a proposition many hope still to make semi-successful — goes the task of introducing nuance and complexity into the discussion; admitting, yes, it’s still god-awfully tough right now (despite the surge), while adding, if not in so many words, quitters never win.
The peril of quitting is the topic hardly any Democrat — certainly not Obama — wants to bring up. To bring it up would be to admit to complexity. There would be pain as well as gain from withdrawal. You never hear it from the Democrats. You hear instead the "less safe" mantra, amid self-bestowed back pats for having doubted or opposed the war from the start.
In fact, John McCain is right — if you prefer, conceivably right — in what he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "Terrible consequences" would follow the abandonment of "our responsibilities in Iraq."
Whether we’re "winning" at the moment surely isn’t the issue. The question that campaign rhetoric tends to mask is, what would happen if we just walked away? We take our bats and balls, head for home and … what then? The cost to the Iraqis would be …? The cost to us would be …? Doesn’t a candidate for president owe it to the voters to wonder aloud?
Enough rhetorical questions. Here’s a plausible view of what would happen: The country would explode, and major responsibility for the ensuing deaths and the outgoing tide of refugees would be ascribed to the United States.
The departure of all our troops would take months, even if President Obama gave the signal on Inauguration Day, so combat wouldn’t end right away for American troops. A consideration Obama seems unwilling to wrestle with is that of our troops’ being sucked into the maelstrom of civil war, like it or not. All he affirms, with calculated vagueness, is a desire to keep a certain number of troops close at hand to intervene, or something like that, in particular unspecified situations. Nor could one dismiss the certainty of international laughter and scorn at the spectacle of the mighty Americans returning home, tail between legs, whimpering. Spectacles of that sort do wonders for a country’s image, both at home and abroad, wouldn’t you agree?
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says of Iraq: "We do not have the option of withdrawal." The option to engage in unserious sound bites on the campaign trail for the sake of excitement — that’s a different matter. You can make a perilously complex international crisis sound like simplicity itself.
And what’s the sound bite when, having implemented your sound bite policy, you find everything coming to pieces — loudly, explosively?
Here’s one possibility: "Oops. Sorry."