Obama’s Turn on Iraq

Now that Hillary Clinton is expanding on her Iraq position by advocating a cap on troop levels and setting new conditions on funding for the Iraqi government, the burden of detailing an Iraq plan should logically shift more towards Barack Obama, who yesterday took his first official step towards a presidential bid.

Yesterday, a couple of reporters and I caught up with Obama outside a meeting room on the third floor of the Senate building. On the way down to his car, the conversation progressed from political mechanics (“We are starting to have conversations with staff and hiring staff, we are starting to raise funds,”) to what he would do on Iraq.

I asked Obama if he planned to articulate a comprehensive Iraq policy before Feb 10th, when he says he is likely to announce his final decision to run for president.

Here’s what he said:

“I think Iraq is one of the central questions that we face, not just between now and ’08 but post-’08. I intend to be vigorous participant in that debate and have an affirmative policy.”

And what will that affirmative policy be?

“I put forward a statement three months ago how we should pursue it and it ended up being quite similar to how the Iraqi Study Group viewed the issue as well as many of our military experts. There is a more specific strategic question about how we should proceed in terms of votes given that the president is determined to take what I consider to be a completely wrongheaded approach.”

That policy he was referring to, delivered in a speech on November 20th in which he famously declared “there are no good options left in this war,” specified an opposition to sending additional soldiers, and advocated “a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces,” and “precise levels and dates” for a redeployment from Baghdad.

But Obama left it unclear in that otherwise detail-rich speech what those levels and dates should be.

“I am not suggesting that this timetable be overly-rigid,” he argued. “We cannot compromise the safety of our troops, and we should be willing to adjust to realities on the ground. The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels. Moreover, it could be suspended if at any point U.S. commanders believe that a further reduction would put American troops in danger.”

When one of us pushed him yesterday as to whether he enjoyed an advantage over Clinton as a result of not casting a vote for the war (he criticized the war from his post in the Illinois legislature) Obama refused to answer directly.

“People want something new,” he said, “and what is most important for me is to figure out what I actually believe on an issue and say it clearly and forthrightly and let the politics sort themselves out.”

I followed up by asking him if he had completely figured out his Iraq policy.

“I have arrived at a position in terms of Iraq. I know what we should be doing. What we are now figuring out is institutionally what levers do we have to stop the president from taking what I think is the wrong approach.”

–Jason Horowitz