Shadow Government

Obama's Iraq speech: another missed opportunity

President Obama's speech on Iraq was a disappointment. Not a surprise, but a disappointment.

It was disappointing because it was yet another missed opportunity. He could have shown real statesmanship by acknowledging he was wrong about the surge. He could have reached across the aisle and credited Republicans who backed the policy he vigorously opposed and tried to thwart, a policy that has made it possible (but by no means certain) to hope for a responsible end to the Iraq war. He could have have told the truth about his Iraq strategy, that what he has pursued thus far has not been what he was arguing for in the campaign -- that would have involved the departure of all U.S. troops by mid 2008 -- but rather he has followed, in a more or less desultory fashion, a script written in the status of forces agreement negotiated by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki.

Instead of giving such a speech, Obama gave a campaign address trying to claim credit for anything that is going well in Iraq and trying to avoid blame for anything that is going poorly. That may be shrewd campaign politics, but it is not the statesmanship the occasion warranted. The commander-in-chief missed an opportunity, and I worry that it will come back to haunt us.

Given how perilous his political position is, it should not surprise that Team Obama chose to play politics with the moment. The latest USA Today poll has Obama down to 41 percent presidential approval, very dangerous waters indeed for a first-term president heading into the mid-term elections.

Yet for precisely this reason, Obama needs all the support he can get. He needs as sure a footing for all of his war policies as he can build. The surest foundation is one based on honesty and candor and that speaks to the people most committed to seeing the wars through to a successful conclusion -- even if they happen to be in the opposite party.

The truth is that Obama is running out of pages in the Bush playbook on Iraq and so increasingly it will fall to Obama to forge his own Iraq policy. Once the playbook is entirely his, he will bear full responsibility for the consequences. The only real change he made to the Iraq playbook he inherited was to signal to the Iraqi leaders that he was, in Charles Krauthammer's words, "washing his hands of Iraq." Where President Bush signaled a commitment to succeed regardless of the political cost, President Obama has signaled, perhaps unintentionally, a commitment to abandon Iraq regardless of the national security costs.

It is a commitment I don't think he can really stick to unless the Bush surge really has produced irreversible progress in Iraq -- something that no Bush alum would ever claim. If Iraq spirals into chaos, Obama will encounter the very same national interest calculation Bush encountered: What happens in Iraq matters greatly for U.S. national security, even more than what happens in Afghanistan (this is why Bush prioritized Iraq over Afghanistan in 2006-2008 when both were in trouble).

Adverse developments in Iraq will be (and will look to be) increasingly a function of the Obama Team taking their eye off of the ball and rushing to declare mission accomplished. Yes, in such a scenario the Iraqis should bear most of the blame, but the part that is due to U.S. action or inaction will be Obama's responsibility. And it will matter. Iraq is at the center of a region that every president since Jimmy Carter has identified as vital to our national security. Iraq is next door to, and the playground for mischief from, the most thorny national security challenge the United States faces: a nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian regime. These inconvenient facts mean that if the Iraqi situation demands more focused and costly U.S. attention, it will likely get it. At that point, what sort of domestic coalition will be available for President Obama's Iraq policy?

Of course, what matters is less what he says about Iraq and more what he and the Iraq hands in his administration actually do. The lack of strategic focus from the White House has made their job harder, but it has not necessarily doomed the Iraq team's efforts irrevocably. We can hope that they will be able to wield our rapidly decreasing leverage with rapidly increasing skill. Hope is not the surest foundation for a national security strategy, but it may be our best bet at this point.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What's going on inside David Cameron's foreign policy?

A year ago I speculated on what a Tory foreign policy might look like. One thing that I didn't anticipate is that it might look so much like David Cameron himself. That is, not content to delegate the national security portfolio to capable ministers such as William Hague and Liam Fox, Cameron has emerged as a major foreign policy player in his own right. Whether a distinctive "Cameron Doctrine" in British foreign policy might emerge remains to be seen. What appears so far is an effort to reassert the U.K.'s posture on the global stage through building new alliances, repairing old ones, bolstering British commerce, and generating headlines through "straight talk."

Cameron's first weeks in office were heavy on domestic policy, marked by his proposed dramatic budget cuts and decentralizing National Health Service reforms. Although evoking outrage from the usual interest groups (especially public sector unions), such measures will be indispensable for returning the U.K. to fiscal solvency, restoring broad-based economic growth, and reigniting the U.K.'s moribund entrepreneurial sector. More recently, Cameron's global travels from the U.S. to Turkey to India have been marked by a series of brash statements. Whether confident assertions of national interest (defending BP in Washington), shameless pandering (criticizing Israel in Turkey), or impolitic yet true criticisms (denouncing Pakistan's ties to terror groups in India), Cameron is serving notice that he intends to be the main voice of British foreign policy.

Less noticed but equally interesting has been Foreign Secretary William Hague's tenure. Hague and Cameron seem well-aligned on policy though divergent on style. True to form, Hague has been systematically laying out a vision for the U.K.'s role in what he calls the "networked world" through a series of thoughtful speeches. Fortunately Hague seems to have eschewed his previous declinist rhetoric about the U.K.'s global posture; perhaps with the responsibilities of office comes a renewed commitment to U.K. leadership.

Herewith a few questions and question marks on the Cameron government's foreign policy:

  • Where are the LibDems? The story in the weeks before the May 4 election was the stratospheric ascent of the LibDems; the story since they joined the government is a plummet just as rapid. As Max Hastings put it, Nick Clegg's plunge from a 72 percent approval rating to just 8 percent "makes Icarus seem a success story." On the other hand, Clegg's leveraging of one golden campaign week in May into a perch as deputy prime minister looks now like perhaps the shrewdest capitalization on an inflated asset bubble since AOL merged with TimeWarner. Meanwhile, on the question of governing, the LibDems have barely been seen or heard on foreign policy issues. This may change if they take a stand against funding for full replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
  • Whither Liam Fox? The potentially odd-man out in the Cameron-Osbourne-Hague leadership triumvirate is Defence Minister Liam Fox. Smart, conservative, and strong-willed, he is making his presence known but may have limited influence due to his distance from the Cameron inner circle.
  • Will the overtures to India bear fruit? The kerfuffle over Cameron's Pakistan comments threatened to overshadow the significance of his visit to India. Leading a delegation of five Cabinet Ministers and numerous business leaders, Cameron made India the first and only Asian country on his itinerary -- and made clear that the U.K. seeks a broad-based commercial, security, and diplomatic upgrade in its relationship with India. Ironically, amidst the Obama administration's ongoing neglect of India, it may be the Cameron government that carries forward the Bush administration's legacy of elevating the strategic partnership between India and the West.
  • What about Afghanistan? Cameron has tried to straddle fragile and diminishing public support for the U.K.'s Afghanistan deployment with the security imperatives of the NATO mission by announcing a withdrawal date of 2015. Even this, however, sends a signal of irresolution to British troops in theatre. In private conversations I had last week with several British Army officers, every one voiced frustration that a specified withdrawal date demoralizes their forces and encourages the Taliban enemy. (No surprise, they found the Obama administration's July 2011 drawdown date even more indefensible). The Afghan question has major implications for other U.K. concerns as well. For example, as Walter Ladwig has pointed out, Cameron's hopes for a partnership with India hinge in part on the U.K.'s sustained and successful commitment to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
  • What hath Brussels to do with London? (or, What about the EU?) During the decade-plus of the Tory sojourn in the political wilderness, pundits incessantly tut-tutted about how the EU issue would forever bedevil Conservative efforts to regain power, as the party was wracked by internal divisions between its Euroskeptic and Europhile wings. Now into the third month of the Tory government (in coalition with the Europhile LibDems), EU issues have been on the back-burner. Will EU concerns stay simmering along as second-tier concerns, or will they re-emerge in some way as a first-order threat to government unity?
  • And of course...what about the "Special Relationship"? Considering the various BP distractions, David Cameron's recent visit to Washington seemed to go well enough. The rapport between Cameron and Obama is much improved over the flaccid Gordon Brown-Obama relationship. Relations between Hague and Secretary Clinton are likewise cordial. Press conferences and photo ops aside, the real tests will be whether and how much the leaders come to confide in and depend on each other on a regular basis. And even more, how they act in the eventuality of an international security crisis -- such as a large-scale terrorist attack, or a military confrontation with Iran.

Daniel Berehulak-Pool/Getty Images