Iraqi PM Maliki Endorses Obama’s Withdrawal Plan
Lost amidst the hoopla of Obama’s overseas trip is a statement issued by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to the German magazine Der Spiegel .
“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”
To understand how significant this is, consider for a moment what would have happened if Maliki had endorsed McCain’s position. Ezra Klein gets it right:
To really understand the importance of Maliki’s comments, you need to consider their opposite. Imagine if Maliki had walked in front of the cameras and said, “at this stage, a timetable for withdrawal is unrealistic, and we hope our American friends will not bow to domestic political pressures and be hasty in leaving Iraq just as the country improves.” It would be a transformative moment in this election. John McCain would talk of nothing else. The cable shows would talk of nothing else. Magazines would run thousands of covers about “Obama’s Iraq Problem.” Obama would probably lose the race.
This is significant because it validates Obama’s strategic support for withdrawal of American troops according to a set – if slightly flexible – timetable. Since the very beginning, Obama has argued that we need to pull US troops out of Iraq in order to pressure the various political elements in Iraq to work toward real compromise. A permanent US presence would not stabilize the country like Korea or Germany, but would actually prolong the political stalemate that prevents the country from moving forward.
There is a major irony to this whole debate. Until earlier this year Republicans insisted that the real question was not past judgment on going to Iraq or decisions made along the way, but what we should do going forward. But now, McCain is trying to cast his support for the surge as evidence that he gets Iraq better than Obama. The problem for McCain is not that he supported the surge but that he viewed the surge as a step toward permanent Korea-style occupation. The difference has always been about strategy – where we should be over the long term – and not tactics. And Maliki just endorsed Obama’s strategic AND tactical position regarding troops in Iraq going forward: it’s time for US troops to move out and soon.
Maliki insists he is not endorsing a US candidate. But he has just done that better than any blanket statement. McCain will argue that Maliki can push this because facts on the ground have made a near-term withdrawal possible. McCain is only partly right here, however. Yes, the security situation has improved to the point where Maliki can speak confidently about a post-US Iraq. But the deeper “fact on the ground” is the deep unpopularity of US troops in Iraq. If this were Korea or Germany, there would be very little political pressure internally to ask US troops to leave. But the fundamental distaste among Iraqis for US troops in the country outweighs any desire to maintain a longterm American security posture there.
If this is a debate about the past, both Obama and McCain can have their say. McCain was right to support the surge and to back Petraeus’ plan to support the Anbar Awakening. Obama was right to oppose the war overall and push for withdrawal sooner rather than later.
But if this is a debate about the future, Maliki has just signaled that Obama’s position is more strategically sound for Iraq and tactically acceptable than McCain’s open-ended commitment.