Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has gotten much heat for suggesting that when people lose faith in Washington, they "end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms [and] gay marriage."
How strange, then, that during his questioning last week of the two most senior American officials in Iraq, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama took a minimalist view of what America could do to help Iraqi citizens regain faith in their government. Instead, the Illinois senator lowered the criterion for American "success" in Iraq, declaring that he could live with "a messy, sloppy status quo" in the country.
Obama's line of questioning was shrewd. With Petraeus he focused on al Qaeda, pushing the general to admit that the complete elimination of the group in Iraq was not necessary. Here's how Obama put it: "Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq. Is that accurate?"
"That is exactly right," Petraeus replied.
Obama then turned to Iran and questioned Crocker, the point man in the America-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad. As with Petraeus, Obama sought to lower the benchmark for what the United States should define as Iraqi "success." However, Crocker was less pliable. When Obama argued that it was unlikely that Iranian influence in Iraq could be terminated, Crocker responded: "[W]e have no problem with a good, constructive relationship between Iran and Iraq. The problem is with the Iranian strategy of backing extremist militia groups and sending in weapons and munitions that are used against Iraqis and against our own forces."
Obama didn't offer a convincing rejoinder to Crocker's protest. Instead, his time almost up, he cut to the crux of the exchange: a summary of his position on the war for an electorate that, he knew, would be listening to his every word. Obama's views were best captured in this passage:
And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
As the Lebanese commentator Hussain Abdul-Hussain bitingly wrote: "Obama's description of a post-America Iraq looked pretty much like post-1991 Iraq under Saddam Hussein: a country 'struggling along' but that was no 'threat to its neighbors' and was not 'an al Qaeda base.'"
Indeed, but Obama was surely right in assuming that many Americans, perhaps a majority, have no problem with this. Saddam's brutality was never something they worried about. If you moved the goalposts a bit, Obama told them, failure would magically become success. The U.S. could head toward the exit in Iraq with its conscience clear.
The difficulty with Obama's appraisal was not just that it was based on a selective reading of the situation in Iraq, so that his assertion of how the U.S. had to realistically accept continued Iranian influence in the country somehow morphed into tolerance for Iran's systematic undermining of American interests there. The difficulty was not just that Obama over-optimistically assumed that his "messy status quo" could be sustained even if the U.S. removed most of its troops from Iraq (a point Crocker tried to make, before being cut off by Senator Joe Biden); the real difficulty with Obama's case was that it revived an American reading of Iraq that treats Iraqis as secondary characters in their own drama.
For the first two years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration was guilty of the same behavior. Iraq was about America and American power. Iraq's 2005 elections were the first real sign that Washington understood why the Iraqis mattered. Yet it was the 2007 surge that took this realization to new heights. U.S. commanders grasped that the security of Iraqi cities and civilians had to be the centerpiece of a new counter-insurgency strategy requiring U.S. soldiers to insert themselves more than ever into Iraqi society. Iraq's complex social dynamics were studied and, as effectively as possible depending on location, acted upon. For the first time the discussion in the U.S. seriously addressed what a pullout might mean in terms of Iraqi suffering.
That's why Obama's comments were so off-putting. He effectively told the Iraqis, once again, that they weren't worth anything to America. If violence and corruption were controllable, if al Qaeda was still around but was limited to Iraq proper, if Washington could stomach the Iranian manipulation of Iraqis, then it made little difference what the deeper aspirations of Iraqis in general were. Iraq could be a suppurating wound at the heart of the Middle East—a suppurating wound, Obama has tirelessly reminded us, which the U.S. helped create—but that counted for little when faced with the American urge to get out as soon as possible.
In his own defense, Obama might remind us that he's accountable only to his countrymen, not to the Iraqis; that the "good government" he has talked about in his campaign applies to embittered Americans, not to Iraqis embittered by the prospect of a precipitous U.S. departure. He might even be elected on that basis. But this would show that Obama, who has sold himself as a man of vision at home, is selfishly unimaginative abroad. Worse, because it is unlikely he will be able to much alter U.S. policy in Iraq, since Iran will not cede much more to the next administration than it did to this one, Obama's promises are potentially deceitful.
For as long as American leaders don't treat Iraqis as important in their own right, the Iraqis will have no incentive to tie their long-term interests to America's wagon. Should that matter? Both realists and idealists would probably answer in the affirmative. But where does Barack Obama stand? It's hard to imagine that Iraqis see in him change they can believe in.
reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.