Shadow Government

Is two months really all that's different in Obama's plan?

By Christian Brose

For the sake of self-preservation, I generally try to avoid grappling with Marc Lynch on Middle East issues, but something about this doesn't sound quite right to me:

I agree with Dan Drezner that the most amazing thing about Obama's Iraqi plan may be that it appears to command such wide-spread support and has been received with a collective yawn from the assembled punditry class.  This is particularly amazing because if you ignore the spin, the plan he announced yesterday is virtually identical to the one he presented throughout the election campaign. The only real difference is the move from 16 months to 18 months in the timetable.

Well, yeah, that, but also a few other things. Like the fact that when Obama first announced his withdrawal plan -- in January 2007 -- al-Qaeda largely controlled western Iraq. The Maliki government was still utterly beholden to sectarian interests and losing control of its country. Sadrist militias and other criminal elements were dominant in the south. The Sunni-Shia division was still violent and bloody. And the U.S. military effort to stabilize Iraq was failing.

Yes, some existential political questions still remain unresolved in Iraq today. But whatever one thinks of the counterinsurgency campaign of the surge, the facts on the ground in Iraq are now nearly reversed: Al-Qaeda in Iraq is broken and reeling. The Sunni Awakening has removed the main raison d'etre of the Shia militias (and with it, much of their popular support). The prospect of a failed state in the heart of the Middle East no longer seems like a near-term threat. The Maliki government is pushing the sovereign writ of a representative state into parts of the country it formerly never controlled. And whether you dispute the success of the surge, the perception at home and abroad is that it worked, that U.S. power, competence, and will appear far more credible today than they did in January 2007, and that counts for a lot.

So to say that Obama's plan is basically identical to the one he announced two years ago is true on the face of it. But for reasons he opposed, the context in which he will now implement that withdrawal is totally different. Obama has been consistent. It's just that reality has come to him. And a plan that would have unfolded under conditions of mounting failure (and quite possibly exacerbated them) will now occur from a position of strength and increasing success (and quite possibly reinforce them). Hence the large degree of bipartisan support for withdrawal that now exists. Indeed, the context in Iraq is so different today that one almost wonders whether it is even accurate to call the plan Obama announced yesterday the same plan of two years ago.

But other than those two months, yes, it's all the same.

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