The bipartisan goodbye



Given the fact that Barack Obama has sought during the past week to overhaul the entire domestic policy debate, it's not surprising that his right-leaning critics have resorted to rhetorical vituperation. In recent days, we've heard Ron Paul invoke the spectre of "fascism," we've heard Mike Huckabee invoke "Lenin and Stalin," and we've heard virtually all of them trot out the word that got them nowhere during the '08 campaign. That word, of course, would be "socialism."

By contrast, consider how most people - on both sides of the ideological divide - greeted Obama's Friday announcement about bringing home the 142,000 troops currently situated in Iraq. Over the weekend, there was virtual quietude throughout the land. Who would ever have imagined, a few short years ago, that Iraq would be the relatively easy issue for a new American president, that a rough domestic political consensus would take shape concerning the end game for this divisive war?

In domestic political terms, there is now ample middle ground on Iraq, and Obama has staked it out. His own definition of Mission Accomplished ("By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end"), and his incremental timetable (leaving behind 35,000 to 50,000 "transitional forces," all of whom would come home by the end of 2011) appear to be acceptable to a broad swath of strange bedfellows.

Notwithstanding some restiveness on the left, most antiwar liberals seem satisifed that Obama has essentially mapped our exit. In the Republican camp, John McCain finds the Obama plan to be sensible. Former members of the Bush administration have even signaled their satisfaction.

Several key factors have contributed to the formation of this middle ground. Although many liberals are loath to admit it, the 2007 Bush shift in military strategy, led by General Petraeus, has helped quell the worst of the violence and provide for some measurable stability. Liberals are right to argue that the Bush regime needlessly lit the flames in Iraq and fumbled around for nearly four years before discovering the right firehose, but that doesn't change the fact that Iraq is more pacified today than at any time since the war began. Obama, in his speech on Friday, never directly admitted that the "surge" had worked militarily in spite of his own '07 skepticism, but he came close anyway, by praising the troops who had "succeeded beyond any expectation."

To the extent that Iraq is now relatively stable, Americans of various ideological stripes can now more easily envision a pullout timetable that both protects the troops and leaves Iraq in one piece and in charge of its own destiny. Obama comes off looking like a politican who keeps his promises to his base (albeit with a 19-month timetable, three months longer than his campaign pledge), while Republicans can laud the timetable as a sensible response to the improved conditions on the ground. As Chris Brose, the former chief speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice, contended while discussing Obama's Friday speech, "Bush probably would have given a very similar speech. After all, that was the logic of the surge. It was one last push to stabilize Iraq and pass off to Iraqis the best possible situation."

There's another element to this rough consensus: Obama is merely hewing to the terms of the new Status of Forces Agreement that was signed by the Bush administration last November after extensive negotiation with the Iraqis. It mandates: "All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, waters, and airspace no later than 31st of December, 2011." It also mandates: "All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and later than 30 June 2009." If McCain had been elected last November, he would have been bound by these same strictures. By force of law, the American occupation was going to end anyway.

And judging by the muted conservative reaction to Obama's timetable, there is now a rough consensus that we will never achieve "complete and final victory" in Iraq. (That was Bush's standard for success, articulated in 2003.) On Fox News yesterday, Chris Wallace did note, repeatedly, that Obama had never talked about "victory" in his Friday speech, but Wallace's guest, U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shrugged off the complaint.

Obama, in his speech, signaled that we can expect nothing more than an imperfect stability: "We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until we are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected." There has been virtually zero domestic uproar about Obama's argument, and nary a word on the right about Obama inviting terrorists to "follow us home."

Naturally, some questions do linger. All the U.S. "combat forces" must leave the cities and towns by the end of this June, but what they will be doing during the many months before they are sent home? What happens if Iraq becomes less stable during the months prior to the August 2010 combat-mission deadline (when, for instance, many of the four million displaced Iraqis try to return home)? Might Obama feel compelled to extent that deadline, despite what he declared on Friday?

As for those 35,000 to 50,000 "transitional forces," some of them will surely see combat as they hunt for terrorist cells prior to their December 2011 departure. Indeed, Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post military expert who has authored two well-received books on the war, addressed that issue on his blog this weekend: "(T)here are going to be two combat brigades at the core of that post-2010 American force in Iraq, plus a substantial Special Operations force executing combat counterterror missions. And those bombs that hit American convoys sure feel like combat, especially when the flash of the explosion is followed by RPG and machine gun fire, even if the soldiers inside the Humvees are told they are on a non-combat mission." So my question is: if these "transitional" soldiers get bogged down amidst heightened violence, could Obama be tempted to extend their stay past December '11? (The terms of the Status of Forces Agreement would make it difficult for him to do that.)

But, as evasive politicians like to say, these questions are merely "hypotheticals." All we know for the moment is that exiting Iraq is the centrist American position. As the latest CNN poll noted, 69 percent of us want most of the troops to come home. With most of us now marshalling our energies for the historic domestic policy battles of 2009, it is clear that Iraq fatigue is a consensus American sentiment.


The timing of the Pentagon's decision last week to allow the press to photograph the returning coffins of U.S. soldiers (with the families' case-by-case permission) is also noteworthy, because that new stance underscores the new middle ground about Iraq. While viewing the photos of flag-draped coffins, any rational person, of any political persuasion, can (a) respect the sacrifices of the troops, and (b) reflect on the human cost of war.
Not long ago, when the war was a major polarizing force here at home, those two options often seemed mutually exclusive. Antiwar Americans wanted to show the coffins in order to emphasize (b); war supporters wanted to keep a lid on the press coverage, for fear that (b) would overwhelm (a). Today, however, as the middle ground expands, more Americans are presumably able to give equal weight to both sentiments. In our grim winter of domestic discontent, this muting of war emotion constitutes good news.


Tomorrow: My Q & A with weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who led the CIA-sponsored, post-invasion search for Iraqi WMDs in 2004...and found zip. We talk about Iraq, then and now.