In 1978, with America’s ally the Shah of Iran under siege, President Jimmy Carter asked a former diplomat named George Ball to study the situation and recommend a course of action. Ball’s chief qualification was that he, more than any other high-level U.S. official, had been right about Vietnam—from early on, he had warned it would be a quagmire. Ball accepted Carter’s offer but refused to visit Iran. In the 1960s he had watched one colleague after another set off on fact-finding missions to Vietnam, and each returned convinced that America could win the war. “I had learned from our Vietnam experience,” he explained, “how dangerous it can be when travel is substituted for thought.”
Barack Obama should keep Ball in mind as he mulls John McCain’s suggestion of a joint visit to Iraq. Ball understood something important: that when you take a guided tour, your tour guide decides what you see. In Iraq today, as in Vietnam back then, the tour guides are America’s officers and diplomats on the ground. And in Iraq, as in Vietnam, they have an incentive to show good news—which isn’t always the same as the truth.
To begin with, there’s security. Since the first priority of McCain and Obama’s hosts would be to ensure that the candidates leave Iraq alive, they would by necessity take them to places the U.S. and Iraq have made safe and avoid places they have not. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are unlikely to introduce Obama and McCain to Iraqis who want to kill them, and thus their meetings would tilt heavily toward those Iraqis who want the U.S. to stay and away from those who are trying to force America to leave. As the New York Times has noted, congressional visitors to Iraq almost never have unscripted meetings with average Iraqis whose political views aren’t already known.
Also, Petraeus and Crocker report to the President, a guy with strong feelings about Iraq. They and their staffs don’t want to sound like partisan flacks, but it’s far easier for them to reinforce the Administration’s view than to contradict it, especially when the cameras roll. By making them the spokesmen for its Iraq policy, the Bush Administration has encouraged Americans to believe Petraeus and Crocker are independent analysts who just happen to agree with their Commander in Chief. But Petraeus and Crocker would never purposely craft an itinerary that might cast doubt on the Administration’s policies and embarrass their boss—or the man who shares his views, McCain.
It’s for exactly these reasons that some of the members of Congress who know the military best have been most wary of visiting Iraq. When Patrick Murphy, who served with the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad, returned to the country as a Congressman in 2007, he said he found the trip “somewhat scripted” and insisted on breaking off and seeing his former comrades so they “would give the straight story.” Senator Jim Webb, a former Marine and Secretary of the Navy, called congressional Iraq visits a “dog and pony” show.
This is not to say the security improvements in Iraq are illusory. It’s just that the war’s realities are too elusive to grasp on a brief trip led by people with a vested interest in what you see. In Vietnam, the wisest U.S. officials sought out journalists like David Halberstam and Bernard Fall who had spent years traveling the country, and former diplomats and military officers who had the freedom to say what they really believed. And even that kind of granular, uninhibited knowledge isn’t much help without a larger view of the world. McCain thinks winning in Iraq is the single most important foreign policy challenge facing the next President. As a result, he’s willing to spend billions more dollars, impose a far greater strain on the military and divert U.S. attention from other problems to incrementally improve our chances of success. Obama thinks Afghanistan and Pakistan are more central to the war on terrorism and that our resources in those countries would bring a higher rate of return. Given that fundamental difference, a joint trip to Iraq—and only Iraq—concedes McCain’s key assumption. Perhaps Obama should counter by proposing that they visit southern Afghanistan, where America’s war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has been crippled for years by the diversion of troops and attention to Iraq.
If anyone knows that clarity often comes with distance, it’s Obama, who spent 2002 and 2003 in Chicago, far from the secret briefings that persuaded many Democrats to back the war. Today he should kindly decline McCain’s offer and keep his distance once again.