Barack Obama didn’t used to be equivocal about the war in Iraq. “I don't oppose all wars,” he said in a much quoted speech. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. ... A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
That was a while ago, in 2002 when Obama was an Illinois state senator. But the speech was copied and referenced by the Obama presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008. And during that campaign, Obama made a promise — to end the dumb, rash war that had been started by his predecessor. He said if he was elected president he would remove U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, all but a few hundred embassy guards and advisers. That was a clear break with the country’s interventionist past and no doubt one reason for his victory. He repeated the pledge in 2009, just after his inauguration: “Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end. I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”
That promise may have been as plain as he could make it, but it is faltering. Today, there are still 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, some dying in supposedly non-combat roles. And the White House has begun to indicate that it will keep as many as 10,000 there past the end-of-the-year deadline — if the Iraqi government asks for them to stay. Press reports quote unidentified briefers and foreign diplomats as saying that plans for retaining the troops indefinitely are already under way.
The administration’s intention is clear in the open invitation it is waving in the face of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, hoping for a come-hither gesture.
In an e-mail statement to the press last week, the White House national security spokesman wrote deceptively that there are “no plans” to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past the deadline. But he added pointedly that any request by the Iraqi government for the troops to stay “would be given serious consideration” by the Obama administration.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney carried the invitation from there. “There’s only so much time here available for the Iraqi government to make such a request,” he said. “If they do, we will consider it.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, having an opportune luncheon with reporters last week, warned: “Iran is playing an out-sized role right now. Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups which are killing our troops.” The subtext of that chat was clear.
Late in the week, Carney again picked up the offer. “We have said for a long time now if the Iraqi government asks us to maintain some level of troops beyond that end of the year deadline, we would consider it,” he told reporters.
All this marks quite a departure from Obama’s prior exit program. Whether that is plain wrong or is mainly disappointing is a matter of perspective, and hinges on how much flexibility the Commander in Chief reasonably needs in winding down a military adventure that involves several moving parts.
But the prospect of a delayed exit from Iraq, where Obama says we should never have gone in the first place, puts a heavy burden on him to publicly explain why he might renege on his campaign promise, and what such a change might mean for Americans. A wink, wink request from the Iraqis is simply not enough.