The Politics of Timetables

The buzz over the weekend was about a Der Spiegel interview with Nouri Maliki in which the Iraqi PM essentially embraced the 16-month timeline for withdrawal articulated by Barack Obama. While Iraqi government spokesmen have since backpedaled on the remarks, there’s little room for doubt when you actually read them. It’s a testament to how opaque and unpredictable the political context of the Iraq War now is that President Bush, Maliki and Obama are all converging on the need for some sort of “timeframe” for withdrawal, even if everyone is hedging their bets by using murky language or tying it to conditions on the ground. (See Charles Crain’s WPR piece posted Friday for more.)

The political implications of Maliki’s remarks, even if they have been walked back, at first glance seem to benefit Obama. But Obama remains vulnerable to the charge that his withdrawal plan, as initially formulated months ago, is based on the logic of cutting America’s losses rather than in response to the past year’s gains (ie. even a stopped watch tells the right time twice a day). To those gains must be added the announcement on Saturday thatthe major Sunni political bloc will be returning to the Maliki government coalition.

McCain, of course, would like to focus attention on Obama’s opposition to the Surge, and inasmuch as the Surge has coincided with and contributed to the improved security situation in Iraq, it’s a compelling case. The problem is that the major question marks that have yet to be resolved (al-Sadr’s uneasy truce, the Sons of Iraq, and Iran’s influence in general) continue to jeopardize the restored calm, and remain in many ways both intractable to a military approach and capable of outlasting an American military presence. So the McCain argument for a continued presence to solidify the gains begins to resemble the open-ended commitment that is politically unacceptable to both the Iraqi and American public.

The fact also remains that the Surge was essentially a huge gamble, and so hardly the proof of sound judgment. It’s one that has so far paid off, but if it ends up achieving neither a self-sustaining political order for Iraq nor an exit strategy for America, it’s hard to see how it ultimately qualifies as a strategic success. There’s certainly a gathering optimism with regards to Iraq’s future, and I hope it holds. But I’d say the jury’s still out, and it’s a good idea to have a backup plan in case it doesn’t.