Obama is No Eisenhower

In 1952, Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower was critical of our Korean War effort but didn’t visit the war front until after elected.  Today, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, is critical of our Iraq war effort but visited the war zone two years ago.  Obama needs a refresher visit before the election and not only because he’s no Eisenhower, but because Iraq has improved and Baghdad may soon give America its walking papers thus creating a major challenge for the next president.

Eisenhower was a retired Army five-star general who had been Supreme Commander in Europe in World War II.  He knew what to look for in a major ground war and needed no on-the-ground visits to understand the strategic challenges.  Nonetheless, despite his rich experience candidate Eisenhower admitted that only a visit to Korea would help him to “…learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace.”  

The presumptive Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain is a retired naval aviator who has visited Iraq eight times, most recently this March.  McCain, like Eisenhower, understands that experiencing the war zone is something wannabe commanders-in-chief must do.  That’s why McCain has encouraged Senator Obama to revisit Iraq.

“I’m confident that when he [Obama] goes he will then change his position on the conflict in Iraq,” said McCain.  But Obama spokesman Bill Burton retorted that it was “…odd that Senator McCain, who bought the flawed rationale for war so readily, would be lecturing others on their depth of understanding about Iraq.”

There are risks associated with another trip for Obama, however.  An army colonel in Baghdad said that if Obama returns to Iraq he will “be surprised” by the improvements which “…might change some of his thoughts.”   A reality check could make a shambles of Obama’s entire Iraq position and alienate a major pool of supporters. Cynically, even if he went, he might feel compelled to explain away any improvements observed.

To his credit, Obama says he is considering a foreign trip this summer and “Iraq would obviously be at the top of the list of stops.”  “I think that if I’m going to Iraq, then I’m there to talk to troops and talk to commanders, I’m not there to try to score political points or perform,” Mr. Obama said.  This begs the question: Why take a foreign trip if not to visit the war zone?  Besides, politicians in full campaign mode “…try to score political points” at every turn.

However hypothetically, should Obama make the trip he will find that Iraq has improved in many areas and that won’t comport with his campaign rhetoric.  Specifically, neighborhoods once controlled by al Qaeda have been liberated.  Sectarian violence is down and cooperation from Iraqis is stronger than ever. 

A new security phenomena is the 90,000-strong Sons of Iraq (formerly known as Concerned Local Citizens), the local security militia paid $10 per day to maintain order and to collect intelligence in their neighborhoods.  A US colonel says the Sons of Iraq is a “…permanent security solution” that gets “…people to stand up and assume security of their own given area.”

Senator Obama will learn that Iraq’s economy is surging.  The International Monetary Fund announced that Iraq’s gross domestic product will rise seven percent in 2009 and its inflation which peaked at 65 percent in 2006 is projected to be 12 percent for 2008.

Iraq is weaning itself from American aid.  This year Iraqis will outspend the US for reconstruction by more than 10 to one, and American funding for large-scale reconstruction projects will approach zero.  Also, the US share of Iraq’s security costs are dropping and we expect Iraq will soon shoulder the full burden of these costs.  Much of the good economic news is due to oil revenues which this year are expected to reach a record $70 billion.

Perhaps most importantly, Iraq is making significant political progress from the bottom-up.  Iraqi leaders increasingly act together, share power, and forge compromises such as the Amnesty and De-baathification laws.  Fall elections should consolidate this progress at the provincial level to help locals settle disputes through politics rather than violence.

All the improvements mask a serious problem for Washington and Obama ought to visit to best understand the dynamics.  We are negotiating a political time bomb with the Iraqis that could quickly propel US forces out of Iraq at Baghdad’s request.  The next president must thoroughly understand this challenge.

For months, Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, and members of the Iraqi government have been negotiating a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — the time bomb — to replace the United Nations mandate that expires in December 2008 and allows foreign troops in Iraq.  Crocker promises that any US-Iraq agreement will “…reaffirm Baghdad’s full sovereignty.”  But that agreement is in jeopardy. 

Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani opposes the proposed agreement.  Sistani said he would not allow Iraq to sign such a deal with “the US occupiers” as long as he was alive.  This stark view is shared by many in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government as well as many in the government’s Sunni opposition.

That’s why it is quite possible that the UN mandate will expire and there will be no SOFA with Iraq.  That would mean the US must leave.  And isn’t that what we have said we are fighting for?  To give the Iraqis their country back? We would lose all credibility if we do otherwise and it would validate al Qaeda’s points that we are just there to occupy Iraq.  We’re kind of stuck.

No matter the circumstances that cause America to leave Iraq, Obama and the rest of Washington should be concerned that Baghdad is unprepared to survive without our help and regional instability could grow especially if Iran seeks to fill the vacuum.  What will the next president do?  The best we could do is withdraw to Kuwait and be ready to respond. That would deter Iran and reassure our regional allies like Saudi Arabia.

In December 1952, President-Elect Eisenhower traveled to Korea to “find an honorable way to end the war.”  The Korean Armistice was signed the following August.  A similar timeline ought to be on the mind of our next president.

America deserves a substantive debate between the presidential candidates on how this war can be brought to an honorable end.  That’s why in-depth, on-the-ground experience for both candidates is an absolute necessity and especially now that the Iraqis appear ready to push America out the door creating more instability.