Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” Moment

John McCain’s recent op-ed begins with this strange header:

EDITORS’ NOTE: The New York Times wouldn’t print this oped from the GOP candidate.

As many readers of this blog know, the New York Times published an opinion-editorial piece by Barack Obama. When John McCain attempted to publish a reply piece, the Times refused. This is to be expected. As far as domestic policies proceed, the Times is as ideological and partisan as, say the Daily Kos of the Huffington Post. There’s no reason to think the Times is interested in anything other than pushing their own agenda.

Fortunately, the New York Post stepped in. Now that the editorial is published, and a second reason for the Times rejecting it is obvious: it includes a devastating attack against Barack Obama that is difficult to refute. McCain has finally called Obama on running for Bush’s third term:

During the course of eight visits to Iraq, I’ve heard many times from our troops what Major Gen. Jeffrey Hammond (commander of Coalition forces in Baghdad) recently said: Leaving based on a timetable would be “very dangerous.”

The danger is that extremists supported by al Qaeda and Iran could stage a comeback, as they have in the past when we’ve had too few troops in Iraq.

Sen. Obama seems to have learned nothing from recent history. Indeed, he’s emulating the worst mistake of the Bush administration by waving the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely.

I’m dismayed that he never talks about winning the war – only of ending it. But if we don’t win the war, our enemies will – and a triumph for the terrorists would be a disaster for us.

Obama is repeating the “Mission Accomplished” debacle, assuring us that because kinetics are now down, we can leave. Bush III has not learned this lesson from Bush II.

There is a saying, those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

But the intellectually incurious are condemned to repeat what happened five years ago.

That spells trouble and blood for an Obama administration.

13 thoughts on “Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” Moment”

  1. They were talking about his visit to the ME on NPR this morning; he didn’t sound like he was assuming that the war was over. *shrug*

  2. “But I’ve also said that any draw-downs must be based on a realistic assessment of conditions on the ground – not on an artificial timetable crafted for domestic political reasons. This is the crux of my disagreement with Sen. Obama.”

    Domestic how? Maliki himself is asking for our withdrawal within a couple of years and everybody and his cousin is talking about troop shortages in Afghanistan.

  3. Michael,

    Your first comment begins by asserts something tangential to the post with no evidence to support it, and ends with a meaningless physical gesture.

    Your second comment begins with a vague question, and ends with a compound statement, the second part of which is factually incorrect.

  4. You’re correct about the lack of evidence for the first comment; in my defense, I’m operating on three hours sleep (hence the shrug) and my computer doesn’t have sound capability. The latter is important because the evidence is probably in NPR’s online archives and sound is necessary for confirmation if it’s an audio file–look for the one from today referring to his trip to the ME.

    As for my second comment, “everybody and his cousin” is an exaggeration. But I have yet to hear anyone say that we AREN’T short-handed in Afghanistan and have heard many people say we are going back to before the invasion of Iraq! One could argue that a well-run counterinsurgency doesn’t necessarily need a lot of troops, as Barnett has here:


    But is our Afghanistan campaign well run? Add a need for additional troops (and additional minds like Petraeus’) in location A to our ally in charge of location B saying he would like us to start moving our people out soon and the charge that Obama’s timetable is crafted “. . . for domestic political reasons” becomes thin.

  5. If one assumes the war is not, in any meaningful sense of the word, “winnable,” then the best move politically is to declare victory and pull back. (note I do not say pull out–there will be troops in Iraq for a long, long time, regardless of who wins the election).

    So the question becomes “is it winnable?” and that depends on the answer to the question “what is victory?” That, in turn, depends on who you are fighting against and what you are fighting for. Iraq has strategic significance because of its location, but that significance is not enough to justify maintaining a large presence indefinitely. Now, arbitrary “timetables” are rather silly, but if victory is unachievable at some point you have to cut your losses. At what point do we do that?

    So define victory. Personally, a stable and democratic Iraq (even if possible) doesn’t constitute victory. In the long run, a stable and democratic Iraq will probably be in opposition to American policies in the region. It won’t be an Iranian vassal-state, either. It will have to adapt itself to the balance of power in the region, and that means coming to some kind of understanding with Iran. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it begin a small program to acquire nuclear weapons–the strategic reasons have less to do with Saddam than with the dangerous neighborhood. An Iraq with minimal open violence doesn’t constitute victory. If that were the case, it would be sufficient to supply arms to whoever is strongest, and watch them suppress the rest. I can imagine many kinds of failure in Iraq. Some are worse than others, and need to be avoided. I can’t imagine what victory looks like.

    Whatever happens in Iraq, it will neither “win” or “lose” the overall Global War on Terror (which has it’s own problems with defining victory, above and beyond anything that happens in Iraq). That will go on (as both McCain and Obama acknowledge) in some form for the indefinite future. So the immediate question becomes “are most of the resources in Iraq better used there or elsewhere?”

  6. Dan McIntosh,

    Excellent question. Very tought provoking. Really, it’s the sort of comment that I blog for.

    America fights wars to spoil its enemies. It seeks to further its goals through the expansion of the international system, which relies primarily on globalization.

    So the question becomes, who are we spoiling in Iraq? And what is the best way to play for time, with respect to globalization?

    Our prime enemy is obviously al Qaeda and its affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. We presently also oppose Iran. So our goal in Iraq has to be to foil al Qaeda and (as long as it is our enemy) foil Iran.

    Beacuse al Qaeda is a more deadly and permanent enemy than Iran, we should destroy al Qaeda’s ability to act in Iraq while preventing Iran from dominating the country. The first task is nearly done. The second task is performed through an influence competition, in which Iraq will naturally play Iran and the US against each other. (From our perspective, this is fine.)

    There is another goal, which is a learning goal not directly related to foreign outcomes. We want to complete the COIN cycle [1], which will provide us with the knowledge and experience that will allow us to win in Afghanistan and other future wars. We have seen in Vietnam what a loss does to our knowledge of insurgenices — it decapitates it. With Iraq, we will learn from a painful win.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/03/28/the-coin-cycle.html

  7. Good points. America’s greatest strategic advantage has been that it has been able to play the role of spoiler, and to promote a globalization that is in its interest. (I leave the question of whose interests constitute the “national” interest to another time.)

    Likewise, Iraq is an excellent training ground–IF we can learn from it–especially at the tactical and operational levels. There are domestic reasons why the US (particularly the Army) probably won’t institutionalize many of those lessons, but a longer stay in Iraq increases the odds of getting something of value.

    (As an aside, it worries me that so few generals have been fired. You usually need to fire or transfer a lot of people before you find someone who can read and respond to a new situation.)

    As for Al Qaeda, it gets complicated. I suspect that “Al Qaeda in Iraq” has a tenuous connection to the core group. I’ve argued elsewhere that Al Qaeda (the core) has a real problem with Al Qaeda (the mass movement) and with other groups who wish to appropriate the Al Qaeda brand for themselves. (1) Preventing Iraq from serving as a haven for anti-American terrorists (whatever we call them) is an important long-term goal. Destroying the group that calls itself “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is a worthwhile goal. It can be done. I think it is being done, and we need to follow through. It is not sufficient.

    (1) Tech Central Station, 2005. At one point I briefly considered setting up “al Qaeda in Pennsylvania” in order to demonstrate how easy it is to scare people with just the name, but decided it would not only be illegal (implied terroristic threat?) and immoral, but amazingly stupid.

  8. Ask, and ye shall receive. Recent interviews with each of the candidates spell their differing concepts of victory. In each case, Katie Couric asks “what is victory?” and here is how each candidate responds.


    I know what this conflict is all about. I will bring our troops home. I will bring them home in victory. I will not do what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said would be very dangerous. >>We will have a stable Iraq that we won’t have to return to<< (emphasis mine, DM) because we have succeeded in the strategy and we will come home with victory and honor and not in defeat. Sen. Obama has said that if the surge failed that he might have to send troops back. After this surge has succeeded and we’ve won a victory, we’ll never have to send Americans back.


    What happens is that if we continue to put $10 billion to $12 billion a month into Iraq, if we are willing to send as many troops as we can muster continually into Iraq? There’s no doubt that that’s gonna have an impact. But it doesn’t meet >>our long-term strategic goal, which is to make the American people safer over the long term<< (emphasis mine, DM). If that means that we’re detracting from our efforts in Afghanistan, where conditions are deteriorating, if it means that we are distracted from going after Osama bin Laden who is still sending out audio tapes and is operating training camps where we know terrorists’ actions are being plotted.

    If we have shifted away from the central front of terrorism as a consequence of enormous and continuing investments in Iraq, then that’s a poor strategic choice. And ultimately, what we’ve got to do is – we have to recognize that Iraq is just one of our … security problems. It’s not the only one.

    There seems to be a major difference in focus, as well as assumptions. I hope McCain has a more broad concept of victory than the one he articulates here, because what he’s calling for isn’t strategic victory, it’s operational. Operational victory on the wrong front can be worse than irrelevant. It would be as if the US fought World War II by invading Brazil. Even if you win there, it doesn’t really matter.

    McCain seems to be assuming Iraq is the center of gravity, the necessary battle if one is to win the war (or at least not lose it). Obama seems to be assuming Iraq is peripheral.

    So which is right? I’m fairly certain that Iraq was peripheral in 2001, and in 2003. The American commitment made Iraq more important, and it encouraged a transfer of enemy resources to that front. If and when the US shifts to another front, some of those enemy resources will follow. I don’t care much about perceptions of “American resolve,” because those can be influenced by other means, and they aren’t all that important in the long-term calculations of most opponents anyway. It’s a poor bet to assume another state will be so internally fragmented that it will refuse to use its capabilities. And while some people will make that bet (Saddam Hussein comes to mind), most will apply some kind of worse-case assumption.

    If it is American choices that have increased Iraq’s importance, other choices can reduce it. I suspect that two years after most combat troops are out of Iraq–however it is accomplished–the country will not be considered important enough to go back in with a similar force, no matter what happens there.

  9. Dan,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t care much about perceptions of “American resolve,” because those can be influenced by other means, and they aren’t all that important in the long-term calculations of most opponents anyway

    This is an incredibly strong claim. If you can demonstrate it, I’d be as impressed as if you had said “Gravity really doesn’t matter in daily life,” and were able to support that claim.

  10. I’ll see if I can dig up my notes on this. I was rather shocked to see it myself, but the work seemed solid. In retrospect it does make sense. Individuals (including leaders) tend to assume that others are more aware of, and more interested in, their true motives and reasoning than the others actually are. At the same time, among power-oriented realists (which includes most national leaders), there is an awareness that motives are ephemeral, but capabilities endure. Thus the common approach that a “threat estimate” often focuses (and often too much, in my opinion) on what the other can do, rather than what he wants to do. After all, what he wants to do can change overnight. Thus, for example, America’s pullout from Vietnam apparently did far less damage to American influence than many Americans feared it would.

    On the other hand, the capabilities estimate can also be affected by one’s assumptions about motives. I know from experience that the last people to recognize the changes in Soviet policies and capabilities after Afghanistan were people in the (American) White House. Our images of “the other” are remarkably stable.

  11. Dan McIntosh,

    Thank you for your reply.

    “Capabilities become intentions” may be a heuristic or a bias… certainly it’s common theme in national security estimates for many countries.

    Citing this does not defend your assertion regarding American resolve, for example. It is as if you denied gravity mattered, and when challenged on it cited the magnetism as a force.

  12. I may be misremembering the research. The book that made the historical case most clearly (by Mercer, I believe, focusing on the outbreak of WWI) is at my office at work, fifty miles away.

    One of the most remarkable things about the impact of reputation in international relations is how few empirical studies there are. Perhaps that’s because reputation is so difficult to measure, or perhaps it’s because everyone already assumes they know the answer. A lot of the problem in drawing conclusions is insufficient attention to context. My previous posts have fallen into the trap of overgeneralization. So let’s look at specifics.

    Reputation does appear to affect alliance behavior. A strong reputation for sticking with past alliances affects alliance formation and dispute resolution. (1)

    Crisis behavior is less clear. Failed (or successful) crisis deterrence, for example, doesn’t seem to matter as much as is commonly assumed in the literature in strategic signaling. In fact, the effect of past action (standing firm, or backing down) on reputation seems to be pretty low. (2)

    Some of the most interesting work is being done of the expected domestic consequences of backing down, and what effects that has on foreign policy. In democracies, regardless of whether or not reputation has a strong effect on foreign leaders, the belief by key domestic audiences that it does, and the expectation by a democratic leader that he would suffer politically if he were seen to back down, does seem to lead to a stiffening of the spine by that leader. (Consider JFK’s comment on Cuba, that if he let the provocation slide he’d be impeached.) (3)

    When it comes to deterrence (of various kinds), there have been few studies of the effect of reputation. Those that have been done find “little support for the strong-interdependence-of-commitment argument that potential attackers infer the defender’s reputation for resolve from its prior behavior in disputes with other states across a broad range of geographic locations.” (4) It’s not that reputation is insignificant, but its significance is very context-dependent, and situational variables are consistently more important. It also appears that “lessons learned” don’t stick for very long, as the strategic situation changes and/or leaders are replaced.

    To go back to your metaphor: at some levels and in some cases, gravity is a minor part of the analysis (within an atom, for example). In other cases, it is more significant. The neat question is when one factor becomes more important than the other–like the gray area between quantum and classical mechanics.

    Sorry to drone on about this. I find it to be an interesting problem. There are some huge missing pieces to the puzzle.

    (1) Gibler, Thomas M. The Costs of Reneging: Reputation and Alliance Formation. Journal of Conflict Resolution; Jun2008, Vol. 52 Issue 3, p426-454.

    (2) Danilovic, Vesna, and Joe Clare. Reputational Effects of International Conflicts. Conference Papers — International Studies Association; 2007 Annual Meeting.

    (3) Tomz, Michael. Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations: An Experimental Approach. International Organization; Fall2007, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p821-840.

    (4) Paul K. Huth, Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 1999. 2:25–48.

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