Obama’s Travels: Some Good News and Some Risks

Daniel Senor, a former foreign policy adviser for the Bush administration, says Sen. Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq and Afghanistan produced a mix of risks and benefits.

July 23, 2008

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Daniel Senor, a former foreign policy adviser for the Bush administration and senior adviser to the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, says that Sen. Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq and Afghanistan produced some "good news" for the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, but also carried "some risk." The positive, Senor says, is that Obama appeared "presidential" and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to parrot Obama’s ideas on a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal. But Senor worries that tying U.S. troops to a timetable will undermine progress made over the past year.

What did you make of Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq and Afghanistan overall?

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On balance, I thought it was positive for him: On the optics of the trip, there were no great gaffes, no "Dukakis-in-the tank" moments, if you will. He sounded and looked good and comfortable in the skin of a commander in chief, or potential commander in chief, flying around, getting briefed by General Petraeus [head of U.S. Central Command] and meeting with Iraqi political leaders. Substantively, I thought the trip produced some good news for him as well as some risk.

What was the good news?

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It seemed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was sort of parroting Obama’s line on a timeline, or Obama’s parroting his—however you look at it. The point is that they have a common view of the future needs of U.S. forces in Iraq. And these views are certainly different from Senator [John] McCain’s. One could argue it looked like Senator Obama was more in touch with what was going on the ground in Iraq then Senator McCain was. That was the good news for Obama.

And what was the risk?

The risk for Senator Obama is that he still remains wedded to his notion that the surge was the wrong policy. When he was actually pressed in an interview: "Knowing what you know today, if you had known it when you were to vote on troop increases, would you have still opposed the surge?" And he still says he would have. Opponents of his stress that point because it was probably the most significant foreign policy or national security issue that Obama has had to contend with as a senator. And consensus is building around the fact that while there are many problems in Iraq, the surge has basically worked. We can debate degree, but it has basically worked. For Obama to remain wedded to the notion that it didn’t work makes him sound out of touch and a little disconnected and potentially too orthodox in his fidelity to a view that was certainly resonant with the base of his party but may not be as resonant with the independent general electorate.

What about his views on Afghanistan?

The other challenge for him or potential risk is his fixation on Afghanistan. By no means am I suggesting we shouldn’t be focused on Afghanistan – but he makes it an either/or, that we can choose to be focused on Afghanistan but in order to do so we must basically concede or manage the diminishing of the U.S. role in Iraq. That’s problematic because at some point he’s going to have to explain why he thinks that we have more of a strategic interest in Afghanistan then we do in Iraq. The truth is that in Afghanistan we’re not fighting al-Qaeda. We’re fighting remnants of al-Qaeda, but there is more of an al-Qaeda fight in Iraq than there has been in Afghanistan. There are no natural resources in Afghanistan like there are in Iraq that we need to be deeply concerned about getting into the wrong hands. Clearly, America has to fight and win the wars it chooses to fight. And we certainly don’t want Afghanistan to become a failed state or potentially have al-Qaeda take over the state, but Obama has to further develop the idea that Afghanistan is somewhat more of a strategic priority than Iraq, because by suggesting that, he’s heading into some difficult terrain.

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Let me backtrack to Iraq again and talk about the Iraqis. I think Americans have been surprised in the last few months by the emergence of Maliki as a strong, or seemingly strong, prime minister. Now he’s saying the Americans should be out of Iraq sooner rather than later. How much is this pure Iraqi politics and how much is it really substantive?

There were no great gaffes, no "Dukakis-in-the tank" moments … but he still remains wedded to his notion that the surge was the wrong policy.

There is a long history in the post-war Iraq domestic political environment that provides a space for a sort of anti-U.S. troop presence rhetoric. For instance, when Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was running for election in 2004, he certainly made the case that U.S. troops should be reduced. Even President Jalal Talabani has made comments to that effect. Prime Minister Maliki has been making comments like this for almost two years now. He almost undercut President Bush’s announcement of the surge because he said that Iraqi forces would be in a position to secure the country in a matter of six to twelve months in 2006 and 2007. So this has been going for some time.

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Why is this?

There are two reasons primarily. On the Shiite side, the political leadership there has to deal with constant political threats from the sort of radical Sadrist elements [loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr], which are very nationalist and very powerful and potent politically, who want U.S. forces out "yesterday." Certainly when you have a situation where there are provincial elections coming up later this year in Iraq, the Sadrists will be competitive, Maliki has to be careful about the risk or the threat of being outflanked by the Sadrists at the polls. So he’s got to convey that he’s not comfortable with a U.S. presence in Iraq that has no end in sight.

Secondly, there is an attitude among some of the Shiite political leaders that the U.S. forces should leave, but help the Shiites consolidate power throughout the country. If there is an insurgency again, a real Sunni insurgency, the Shiites can unleash on the Sunnis, in a way which they can’t do while the Americans are there. And if things get really, really bad, the truth is that the Americans would come back.

Now there was a story in New York Times saying that the Kurds are very unhappy with this electoral law because it doesn’t really settle the situation in Kirkuk. They want to put the whole thing off. Do you think that will happen?

I do not think that will happen. Look, there are some delays in these political processes that we’ve been dealing with, going back about five years. It almost wouldn’t be an Iraqi political process without some sort of delay. I suspect we will have those provincial elections by the end of this year, at the least the beginning of next year.

And who do you think is going to emerge on top?

These are going to be provincial elections, so they are not elections to the national assembly. What to watch for is whether or not Maliki is able to hold gains from the Sadrists, and whether or not this could deal a real political blow to the Sadrists.  And if it does deal a real political blow to the Sadrists, when you combine the fact that Maliki confronted them militarily in Basra back in March, and then he also deals a blow to them politically in the provincial elections, that puts Maliki is in a very, very strong position.

How will the elections affect the Sunni areas?

These elections will be the Sunni provinces’ first real opportunity to get real and new leadership at the provincial level. One of the most interesting shows in town will be this sort of intra-Sunni political debate and dialogue and competition. The Sunni political leaders that are in power right now in the national assembly have had a monopoly up until now. For the first time, that crowd is going to be really challenged. Some of them will come out on top, some of them won’t, but the fact that it will be a more diverse group is good.

How does that affect the United States? Are the Sunnis and the United States now closer together than they ever were?

Yes, for two reasons. One, the Sunnis have been concerned about Shiite overreach. So they have an interest in maintaining some sort of U.S. presence. Because at the end of the day the irony is that the United States is the only fair, honest broker. And you know, the leader of the Sunni Awakening told Barack Obama that it will be difficult to continue to do what they are doing without the continued presence of U.S. troops. They need the security provided by the U.S. troops in order to continue to challenge al-Qaeda.

Are the other Gulf states concerned about a precipitous U.S. withdrawal or not?

Obama and Maliki "have a common view of the future needs of U.S. forces in Iraq… One could argue it looked like Senator Obama was more in touch with what was going on the ground in Iraq then Senator McCain was."

Yes. The Gulf states have their own nationalist issues that they are dealing with in their own countries. They do not want the optics of a permanent U.S presence or occupation in the Arab world that is not in the interest of the Gulf states. And to the extent that they look like they are collaborating, cooperating, or colluding in any way with this U.S. presence—that is very visible and very clunky and heavy—is not in the interest of the region. That said, if the United States leaves precipitously and you have Iraq turned upside down there is some inevitability that the Sunni Gulf states will be drawn into Iraq. They cannot allow Iraq to become totally destabilized, a country that is right on their borders in some cases. So, they want a low-enough level of U.S. troops so that they are not the eyesore and the galvanizing force in these Sunni-Arab countries, but they want a large-enough force so that Iraq doesn’t collapse and they get drawn into it. It’s a fine line.

It will be very interesting to be in Washington in January, when the new president has to make some big decisions on where to put priorities. After all this Obama travel this week, what advice do you have for the McCain camp?

I know that many people within the McCain orbit are lamenting all the attention Obama is getting on this trip and the degree to which the press coverage is unbalanced, unfair and all the rest—which is all probably true. But I would just say that if this whole election is about the economy, John McCain will probably not win it. If this campaign is about national security, John McCain has a shot. To the extent that this trip has tilted the election away from the discussion about the economy into a discussion about national security, and the extent to which that continues, that’s a pretty good thing for John McCain because it moves the discussion into terrain in which he is much more comfortable.

Does he have to be more flexible on his withdrawal ideas?

No. Politically, if McCain focuses like a laser beam on Obama’s unwillingness to make a concession on how the surge worked, he’ll score very few points on that front. Most people think that McCain’s probably right, but so what? He should use Obama’s comments on the surge as a way to move off of Iraq and into other foreign policy matters and raise questions about Obama’s judgment. McCain has to deal with some other big issues, some other big judgment calls. Whether it’s what to do with a potentially nuclear Iran, what to do about Pakistan—these are complicated issues. And what kind of judgment can we expect from Barack Obama on those fronts? If he can make the surge a test about judgment and uses judgment to raise questions about Obama on other foreign policy matters, that would be helpful to McCain. If he just stays and sits on the surge and just continues to debate on the surge, I don’t think there’s a next chapter to that.

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