Some time, no news is big news. With that in mind, I recommend a pretty good New York Times article about Barack Obama’s insistence on continuing exit plans from Iraq, more or less regardless of what’s happening there. Or, at any rate, despite continued (relatively) low-level violence and considerable political uncertainty. The news here is confirmation that Obama wants out of Iraq, and at least so far, he’s willing to do so despite the certainty that he’ll be attacked over it.
On the politics of Iraq, it’s pretty clear from the article and other coverage that at least some Republicans are preparing to attack the president on Iraq, on the grounds that he’s (1) insufficiently focused on it, (2) stubbornly sticking to an inflexible deadline, and so therefore (3) he will have “lost” Iraq. (Not to mention (4) The Terrorists!). Obama would be wise, on narrow political grounds, to continue to ignore such criticisms. This is, in a sense, a curious case where the usual myopia of the American mass media is going to help Obama even if the policy goes wrong. Basically, as long as Americans aren’t dying in Iraq, there are going to be very few news stories about that nation. That’s going to be true if there’s a low-level civil war, and it’s certainly going to be true if democracy doesn’t, in the end, triumph. Sure, if there’s a coup, CNN will cover it briefly, but after that it’ll be back to weather, murders, shark attacks, and whatever else CNN fills its days with. If there’s no coup, but just increasingly rigged elections, or Iraq falling further into Iran’s camp, it’ll get even less coverage (were you aware of this anti-American rally in Iraq last week? Didn’t think so). No one is ever going to base their vote against Barack Obama or the Democrats primarily on Iraq becoming a basket case, if that’s what happens, in large part because the media aren’t going to cover it.
My impression is that liberals have given Obama very little credit for staying on course in Iraq (that is, continuing Bush’s planned retreat), perhaps because troop withdrawal has not accelerated. It seems to me that the more important thing to watch is that his plans have stayed in place, even when violence flares up, or political markers are not met. One useful measure is American casualties, with American deaths in Iraq falling below a dozen a month in July and then staying there. No spike for the election or the delay in the election, no spike after major bombings, nothing (although American injuries have been running a bit higher in March and April than they had since June 2009). It’s also worth noting that American and allied losses in Afghanistan have not returned to the July-October 2009 peak levels, although still are higher than one year ago.
The significant developments scheduled between now and the 2010 midterm elections are the planned removal of combat troops from Iraq by August, and the planned assault on Kandahar in Afghanistan. If the latter results in a relatively low spike in American casualties, and the former goes off as planned, I suspect the combination will go a long way towards building trust for Obama among liberals. One way to look at this is that Obama has had roughly four areas in which he’s probably disappointed anti-war liberals: moving too slowly out of Iraq, not yet closing Gitmo, not prosecuting Bush-era torturers, and ramping up the war in Afghanistan (the latter of which is in keeping with his campaign promises, but still not something many on the left want). Of these, the easiest one for Obama to rectify sure seems to be keeping to the schedule on troop withdrawals from Iraq. A lot of people (Andrew Sullivan for one) have been skeptical about getting out of Iraq, correctly noting that whenever Americans leave, the president will be subject to Cheneyite attacks that everything was going perfectly well before the sudden cowardly surrender, and Friedmanish helpful suggestions that if withdrawal is only delayed for a few more months that it would make all the difference. So far, it looks as if Obama is going to ignore those concerns: it’s going to take a while, but the war in Iraq is finally ending.