Beautiful Nothings About Iraq

My timezone — and a sick pet — kept me from watching the Super Bowl, but I did catch the advertisement the Obama campaign ran in 24 local Super Tuesday markets during the game. This is pretty slick:

Obama-as-rock star is one of the themes of his campaign, and I’d say the ad reflects that concept almost perfectly by packaging him as the candidate of the MTV (and post-MTV) generation. One look at the front-loaded “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message” (with concert-level cheers in the background) and you know you’re watching at a unique candidate. The main nonpartisan criticism I foresee is that such ads will have difficulty playing outside their target market. For instance, I can’t imagine Obama winning the respect of retirees or working moms with fast-moving graphics and messages set to a rock soundtrack. Of course, the Obama campaign is smart enough not to put all of its eggs into the youth basket, right?

And now the partisan critique: as much as Obama’s ad appeals to my audiovisual pleasure center, like most things “Obama,” it leaves my rational core wanting for more substance. “Change we can believe in,” Obama’s slogan, is sweet-sounding but ultimately a beautiful nothing — it’s something an incumbent like Reagan ’84 could get away with,* but unsatisfying coming from a comparatively green politician like Obama. Along these lines, Obama’s treatment of the Iraq War has all the hallmarks of magical fairy wand politics. “We can end a war” is empowering, inspiring, and, based on Obama’s policy preferences, almost certainly wrong.

A stronger supporter of withdrawal than his main rival Ms. Clinton, Obama has advanced the progressive meme that bringing the troops home is a cure-all for the conflict. While there’s little question that Iraq, like all of America’s foreign policy, desperately needs a new direction, American withdrawals have historically been followed by increased conflict and/or instability. Some examples:

  • Vietnam, where the pullout (and subsequent cutoff of aid to the South) ensured North Vietnam’s victory;
  • Lebanon, where removal of the American “buffer” allowed for full escalation of the war;
  • Somalia, where American withdrawal not only made the life of common Somalis worse but also encouraged Osama bin Laden to step up his terrorism;
  • and Kosovo, where the lack of an American presence in the region after Milosevic was defeated allowed Kosovar Albanians to do unto the Serbs as the Serbs had done unto them.

Most signs point to a post-withdrawal Iraq being a country where Sunni and Shia continue to battle over the core of the country while Kurds “bunker up” in the increasingly autonomous north. Although I’m not predisposed to predict a “bloodbath” after the US pulls out, I think Somalia-esque failed statehood with constant low-level conflict and little working governmental infrastructure (outside of Kurdistan) might be in Iraq’s future.

After all, even if we engage Syria and Iran the way Obama desires and consequently stop the cross-border flow of small arms, Iraq has more than enough weapons in-country to keep life there nasty, brutish, and short. (Note that one of the failures of the occupation — and there were many — was the failure to seize and control enough stockpiles of Iraqi weapons.) The outcome of the ground game in Iraq probably won’t matter, however, since stopping American casualties and reigning in the Pentagon operations budget are the main concerns of the average voter.

However popular the position, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that bringing our troops home “ends the war.” For Iraqis, the war is going to continue until their spirit for war is broken or until, by virtue of agreement or ethnic cleansing, the historical conceit of Iraq unravels and the Middle East is left with three new countries. This is not to say that I endorse keeping American troops in Iraq until doomsday. I’m merely pointing out that the war is likely to continue even though American troops are no longer being killed or wounded.

The bottom line: a President Obama might be able to truly end the war in Iraq, but not with the plan put forward by candidate Obama.

* As a Reagan-loving Republican I admit that “It’s morning in America” was as equally substance-free as “Change we can believe in.”