Can Senator Obama Avoid His Iraq Trap?

One of the most persistent and pernicious myths about the Iraq War, proffered by leading Democrats and propelled by the media, is the accusation that the President and his top aides  "won't listen to the generals." Both President Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were tainted by this fallacious narrative.

If you need proof of that then read this interview
from October 12th, 2002 conducted by New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt. The journalists told Secretary Rumsfeld that the initial press reports about Rumsfeld not listening were incorrect and that they could not find a single senior officer who disagreed substantially with the plan for the war.

Not least among the purveyors of this myth is Senator Barack Obama who told a crowd at the Chicago History Museum last March that he would "listen to the generals" where President Bush had not, preferring instead to push dissenters aside. The reference he makes to pushing generals out includes the former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Shinseki, whom leading Democrats and media pundits claim was "fired" or "forced into retirement". This despite the fact that he finished his four year tenure and retired just as his last three predecessors had done. 

Now Barack Obama has detailed his plan for not listening to the generals in a statement before his upcoming visit to Iraq. He has reaffirmed his commitment to an arbitrary 16 month time-table for withdrawing combat troops. Yet he also claims he will listen to the generals. The two positions are not congruent if the generals tell him that such a time-table is a mistake. All evidence points to the fact that they will do just that.

Even a press which has been deemed by many to be gaga for Obama will likely report what Gen. Petraeus, the outgoing senior commander in theater and General Odierno, his replacement will advise. And that will be to not set an arbitrary date certain. They won't point out directly that Obama is doing exactly what he has charged Bush with doing, but anyone paying attention will know.

So what will Senator Obama do? On the one hand he doesn't want to set up a situation in which he appears a hypocrite by ignoring their advice after making so much about the value of it. To do so might satisfy his extreme left base, the crowd which sees the war as immoral and doesn't care what promises have to be broken to get out of Iraq. It won't matter to them that Obama is doing exactly what they charged the Bush Administration with doing since even before the war.

But for the political center it will matter. Recent polls show that above all other government institutions the military is respected and trusted. Petraeus is seen by the majority of Americans as a real, live hero. found that out the hard way when a move to vilify Petraeus was met with a powerful backlash. However, Petraeus is the outgoing commander having been reassigned to take over CENTCOM later this year in a nearly unanimous Senate vote.

Will Obama claim a special dispensation from his own critique of the Bush Administration because of a public mandate? It is possible, but the mood on the Iraq War is shifting. Many maintain that the anti-Iraq War sentiment grew not out of a shift in how Americans perceive the war on moral terms, but in practical terms. Many Americans gave up when it became clear to them that the war was doomed to failure.

But successes over the last year are starting to move the public back to a more supportive stance for winning at this point, even if they have not shifted much on turning against the original reasons for the toppling of Saddam. Simply put, they would rather we hadn't done it in the first place but since we did, and victory is now achievable, they would just as soon we win it.

They are turning around slowly for good reason. In the first half of July '08, four servicemen have died due to hostile action in Iraq. By comparison, in mid-July '07 that number was 30. That's an 87% drop. 

Another way for Obama to keep from tripping into his own trap carries great risk. Petraeus' replacement has already been the target of the fringe left for not being cerebral enough and appearing the brute because of his overbearing size and aggressive warfighting command style. General Ray Odierno, who was just granted a forth star and confirmed by the Senate, may well be Senator Obama's escape hatch.

Obama needs the generals to agree with him. Most likely, Odierno won't. So he would need to get rid of Odierno: bad luck for the general. Of course, Senator Obama can't fire Odierno, but he can unleash his surrogates against him to attack him in the court of public opinion -- just as Wesley Clark derided Senator McCain's military leadership experience. By vilifying Gen. Odierno, then Senator Obama could say that he intended to seek the counsel of the military leadership, but that his hand was forced by the General's own incompetence.

If this course is going to be followed, in the coming weeks we may see a mainstream media blitz to portray Gen. Odierno as the bad guy. And that would be a shame. The General has spent years in Iraq fighting to salvage this nation's position in the war on terror.

A victory in Iraq for al Qaeda would have swelled its ranks and reputation and the threat would have increased exponentially. Instead, al Qaeda fighters have been mostly defeated and remnants have been forced into an untenable position back in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. That's not where they want to be. Odierno had a large role in making that happen.

It would be the height of hubris for a politician with not a minute of high school ROTC under his belt to assert his military expertise over Odierno. General Odierno was just approved almost unanimously by the Senate. If/when Obama pursues this strategy, then Democrats in the Senate may not like having their judgment called into question for Obama's political expediency.  Will the Democrats in the Senate stand up for the Generals when it is their guy who is "not listening"?

Ray Robison is co-author of Both in One Trench.
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