While television interviews and speeches are good opportunities to deliver a message, they have the downside of being illusory -- you're on, then you're gone, and if you're lucky you might have actually said something worthwhile. With an op-ed, you have a space in which to air your views in a cohesive unopposed manner. But yesterday's New York Times op-ed by Senator Obama showed him at his most incoherent. The op-ed is telling, though, because it provides a window into how Al Qaeda, Iraq, and Afghanistan provide a headache for liberal Democrats who don't quite know how to deal with foreign threats.
The senator alludes to McCain's supposed Infinite War fantasy in the second paragraph:
Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president.
Remove that middle clause and you have a silly (and typical) political slander. John McCain as warmonger is hardly novel at this point, and even Obama has already distanced himself from such statements. Yet here he brings it up again.
"I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face -- from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran -- has grown.
Obama admits that the threat from Al Qaeda has grown, but falls short of suggesting that it's a result of our involvement in Iraq. I'd be willing to hear his argument about blowback and unintended consequences -- perhaps I might even agree with him, depending on the rationale and the conclusions one could draw from it. But then this:
New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda -- greatly weakening its effectiveness.
Here he refers to "new tactics." That's really code for the surge. If he mentions the surge, though, he then has to admit that an effort he opposed is working. It's difficult to parse even were he to concede the surge's success. He opposed the war in the first place because it was a distraction from Al Qaeda. Then he acknowledges that Al Qaeda is not only in Iraq, but attempting to wreak havoc there. Doesn't that mean that while he opposed the Iraqi invasion in the first place, if he was truly concerned about Al Qaeda, he would have decided to push harder on winning in Iraq?
Yet he defends his anti-surge position on some fairly counter-intuitive grounds:
The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we've spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted.
He admits that the surge has worked to encourage the Sunnis to reject Al Qaeda -- again, the defeat of which appears to be the object of his foreign policy goals -- but says that a stretched budget and a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan have made the surge completely not worth it. But without the surge, wouldn't the Sunnis have more difficulty fending off Al Qaeda? And isn't the surge what has made it possible for Iraqi leaders to start setting a timetable for withdrawal?
There's more. What makes the current situation in Afghanistan worth separating it so much from Iraq? He could make the case that an attack on U.S. soil from a Taliban-sponsored terrorist group called for a military intervention. But if that's the case, why should the U.S. continue to occupy Afghanistan post-Taliban?
Because the point is fighting terrorists. The War on Terror, as it seems to barely exist in our consciousness, did not end with the overthrow of the Taliban. Obama apparently recognizes that in his call for more involvement in Afghanistan. But that admission means that the terrorists in Iraq are worth fighting as well.
That, however, is a bold assumption -- that Obama recognizes the threat of terrorism in these countries. My guess, however, is that Obama really doesn't care about Al Qaeda.
The reckless and contradictory statements in this piece indicate a view that Al Qaeda is a small, dangerous, and entirely too-difficult-to-face menace, but politically useful to bludgeon Republicans. (In this light, his belief that we should give Osama bin Laden due process rights makes more sense.) This is why Al Qaeda so frequently comes up as the opportunity cost of Iraq, but never as an independent threat. If the Democrats, Obama in particular, were so serious about how we ought to combat Al Qaeda, shouldn't they do more than simply complain that Iraq is so distracting?
INDEED, THE only proactive measure taken by the anti-war crowd, including Obama, is in demanding a timetable for withdrawal (before the Iraqis ever considered the idea). Such a stance hinged on the idea that the Iraqis were lazy and were refusing to step up to the plate.
That the Iraqis are setting their own timetable isn't a validation of the Obama/anti-war coalition. It's an outright rejection of it. It favors the philosophy behind the surge. The surge rejected all timetables, and instead suggested the unthinkable strategy of "wait and see." It was based on the belief that the Iraqis had no confidence in their own security and were having difficulty achieving anything politically. So far, it seems that belief was correct, and the strategy provided the necessary stability for Iraqis to move forward.
Those who like what Obama has to offer in terms of "change" ought to look closely at this op-ed and see the man for the opportunist he is. But perhaps he's not an opportunist after all. Perhaps he's just confused. In that case, however, one "hopes" he won't remain so as president.
J. Peter Freire is managing editor of The American Spectator and a 2008 Phillips Fellow.