Earlier this week, The New York Times published an article titled “Rivals Present Sharp Divide on Iraq Goals.” The article–while an interesting examination of the two major party candidates’ positions on Iraq–is based on two lengthy interview with Barack Obama and John McCain. The New York Times has put the interviews online, offering a detailed view of what the two campaigns think about Iraq. Once again, the interviews make it clear that neither candidate intends to end the US presence in Iraq.
Some interesting excerpts from the interviews follow:
McCain on Iraq
Q: Are your views converging with Senator Barack Obama? And what do you think the main differences are?
A: I think nothing could be more astonishing to me than people who are saying that his and my position have converged. He still wants a set date for withdrawal regardless of conditions. I have always said, when you win wars, when you defeat counterinsurgencies, you withdraw. But the fact is it’s based on conditions on the ground. Gen. Petraeus — change of command — he pointed out as strongly as he could the fragility of all the success that we’ve achieved. So, I am amused and entertained and puzzled by anyone who asserts that somehow our basic positions are right. First of all, Sen. Obama’s first position they’d have been out in March of 2008. The goal post as it has on his whole view of the surge, he said that — we were “beyond our expectations.” It wasn’t beyond my expectations. He was wrong. So, the fundamental difference remains between myself and Sen. Obama. And it is a gap that is as wide as there could possible be for anyone who understands warfare, that he wants to set a date for withdrawal without any regard to conditions on the ground. As I said, the surge would’ve never had a chance to succeed if we’d had his first position which was: out in March 2008 — completely. So again, I’m entertained and amused at because anybody who thinks that there is any convergence in our positions does not understand the fundamentals of warfare. One of the differences is he wants to come home in defeat; I want to come home with victory and honor.
Q: Why do you reject the argument that troop withdrawals would force the Iraqi government to overcome their political differences?
A: I reject it because if we announce this “troop withdrawal,” the first thing they’re going to do is make adjustments to the conditions that would prevail when we left. They have to stay there, not only them but other countries in the region. They would make adjustments to accommodate to the Iranians, to al-Qaeda, to the different factions, warring factions within Iraq. And you would have a chaotic situation. The only reason, in my view why we have succeeded in Iraq is because the enemy knows that we’re going to defeat them. Not that we’re going to retreat. Not that we’re going to surrender. Not that we’re going to set a date for withdrawal. And the key to this is, we would not be discussing this issue if we had withdrawn.
Q: Well isn’t the Iraqi government itself setting a goal for withdrawal?
A: The aspirational aspects of this are very clear. I have always said that we can withdraw with victory depending on conditions on the ground. It is clear that Prime Minister Maliki has got elections in mind and other things in mind but I also have also talked to the Foreign Minister, I have also talked to the President, and others, and they agree with me on the conditions based; and everything I’ve heard about their negotiations said it will be conditions based.
Q: Have you talked to them since the SOFA agreement was drafted?
A: No I have not. But I have talked to Petraeus and Crocker.
Q: And what do they say?
A: Well they say that it will be based on conditions on the ground. They adamantly state that’s their position.
Q: Did they say that’s the Iraqi position?
A: Well obviously there are mixed messages. As I said, the President of Iraq, the Foreign Minister of Iraq and others have all said one thing. Prime Minister Maliki, in all due respect, on occasion has, as sometimes politicians do, has sometimes said one thing in public and another in private, but again the positions that Senator Obama and I have are radically different. His was the popular position at the time. Mine was the unpopular position at the time. That makes me believe because of his vote to cut off the funding for troops while they’re there makes me convinced that Sen. Obama believed this was another political issue.
Obama on Iraq
QUESTION: How does your vision differ from Senator McCain’s?
A: It is hard for me to tell because Senator McCain has a tendency to speak in very broad terms about victory and success in ways that for example General Petraeus does not. Just recently he was quoted as saying, “I don’t speak in those terms. I am a realist.” Well so am I. And that’s exactly what I think we need when it comes to our policy in Iraq: some realism.
QUESTION: You have made the argument that the withdrawal of American combat brigades would be a form of leverage that would encourage political progress in Iraq. Can you give me an example of how the withdrawal of American forces has prompted political change in Iraq?
A: It is not clear that an ongoing, open-ended presence has prompted political change in Iraq either. The fact of the matter is that we still don’t have an oil law. We still don’t have provincial elections. We haven’t dealt with Kirkuk, and the argument for staying is that we haven’t made sufficient political progress. So it strikes me that for us to deliver a message of clarity to the Iraqis and to the surrounding countries that we are not looking at a permanent occupation, but we want to partner with you to structure a stable and secure Iraq — that actually will force the Iraqis to make some decisions that they would not otherwise make.
Now, in some ways, this question has been overwhelmed by events because we now have the prime minister of Iraq suggesting that we should have a timetable. And so the question now becomes if President Bush and John McCain both have argued that our presence there in that sovereign country is based on their desire to see us maintain operations there, and they start saying we would like to take on more responsibility, it seems to me that in part has put us in a position where we need to start figuring out how that is going to work in the most effective way possible.
QUESTION: You have mentioned that your proposal to withdraw combat brigades within 16 months was developed in consultation with military experts. When you were in Baghdad did you ask General Petraeus how he assessed the feasibility of your plan, the pluses and minuses?
A: We had a wide-ranging conversation. We backed into that question because essentially what I wanted to do was to give him a chance to describe for me what he thought needed to happen and what Ambassador Crocker thought were the developments on the ground. And then I pushed back by suggesting that without drawing down our troops in some careful, strategic way that we would not be able to deal with the problems that I had just seen in Afghanistan before visiting Iraq. So we had that back and forth. And my conclusion, which is something that I said to him and which I certainly don’t think he necessarily disagreed with is that his job up until his move to CENTCOM [Central Command] was to focus on Iraq. His job was not to focus on Afghanistan or Pakistan or the other strategic issues that we faced in the region. And so I don’t fault him for wanting maximum flexibility in his theater of operations any more than a general who was reporting to him or a commander on the ground who was reporting to him in Iraq might say I want as much as I can get to accomplish my mission in Ramadi or down in Basra or what have you. But he had to make choices within Iraq based on overall strategy and the fact what we have got finite resources. The same is true when you look at our overall national security situation. I have got to figure not only how do we stabilize Iraq but also how do we succeed in Afghanistan, and when the commander on the ground in Afghanistan tells me we need more troops and more resources, and you have got Admiral Mullen saying I don’t know to get those troops there unless we start drawing down from Iraq that is something I have to think about. I have to think about the fact that given our current levels of deployment our military is stretched very thin, and that if we had a sudden situation, let’s say in North Korea right now, we’ve got some issues. And that is before we start talking about the expenditures involved at a time when the administration just announced that they want a $700 million credit line. So that is the lens through which I view the situation in Iraq. And that is in no way — in no way does that reflect any unwillingness to consider General Petraeus’s views. I think he has performed with extraordinary ability in Iraq.
QUESTION: Even after the combat brigades you would maintain a residual force in Iraq for counter-terrorism and training missions. What would the elements of this force be? Would if include Special Operations forces, close air support, would it include attack helicopters? Would it include Medivac?
A: It would likely include all of the above. This is an example of where I would be asking the commanders on the ground, having set the mission, which is to prevent Al Qaeda from reconstituting itself and protecting our mission there, our embassy, and potentially the training functions. That question for the commanders would be: “What resources do you need to accomplish this mission?”
QUESTION: Richard Danzig, who people say may serve as your Secretary of Defense if you are election, has said that such a force could be in the range of 30,000 to 55,000 troops. Is that a range that you are comfortable with.
A: I have tried not to put a number on it.
QUESTION: But he put a number on it.
A: Richard is a smart guy, who is communications with commanders on the ground, but this is an example of where I don’t believe in jumping ahead of commanders.
QUESTION: But there could be combat elements in Iraq even after the combat brigades are gone?
A: Look, what I have said is that over the course of 16 months we will have removed our combat forces. In the sense that brigades and battalions that are designed to engage an enemy in an offensive way a war as we understand it would have been brought to a close. But if you are in an environment where remnants of Al Qaeda might still be operating then they still have some combat capability — they better. If we have some Special Forces in the region they are going to be engaging in combat taking out any potential terrorist camps. If we have got trainers in the field who are training Iraqi security forces then I want to make sure that they are protected and part of that means when you are in a dangerous neighborhood that you have got some combat capability. But that’s different from their purpose for being there: engaging in combat operations.