Moderator Charlie Gibson added this scenario to his basic question:
So if the military commanders in Iraq came to you on day one and said this kind of withdrawal would destabilize Iraq, it would set back all of the gains that we have made, no matter what, you're going to order those troops to come home?Both candidates said yes, and defended their answers. I hesitate to quote from their answers because I don’t want to distort their positions. It is best that you read their responses from the transcript of the debate, but I will select the lines I thought central to their arguments. You can see if you agree or not.
Senator Clinton reminded Gibson about the role of civilian leadership in this country:
You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military. And our professional military are the best in the world. They give their best advice and then they execute the policies of the president. I have watched this president as he has continued to change the rationale and move the goalposts when it comes to Iraq.Senator Obama’s answer to the same question:
And I am convinced that it is in America's best interest, it is in the best interest of our military, and I even believe it is in the best interest of Iraq, that upon taking office, I will ask the secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my security advisers to immediately put together for me a plan so that I can begin to withdraw within 60 days…
So the bottom line for me is, we don't know what will happen as we withdraw. We do know what will happen if we stay mired in Iraq. The Iraqi government will not accept responsibility for its own future. Our military will continue to be stretched thin, and our soldiers will be on their second, third, even their fourth deployment. And we will not be able to reassert our leadership and our moral authority in the world.
Because the commander in chief sets the mission, Charlie. That's not the role of the generals. And one of the things that's been interesting about the president's approach lately has been to say, well, I'm just taking cues from General Petraeus.These two responses, one by Clinton and one by Obama, prompted columnist David Brooks to write that “Obama and Clinton were completely irresponsible…
Well, the president sets the mission. The general and our troops carry out that mission. And unfortunately we have had a bad mission, set by our civilian leadership, which our military has performed brilliantly. But it is time for us to set a strategy that is going to make the American people safer.
Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I've given them a new mission, that we are going to proceed deliberately in an orderly fashion out of Iraq and we are going to have our combat troops out, we will not have permanent bases there, once I've provided that mission, if they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration; but ultimately the buck stops with me as the commander in chief.
And what I have to look at is not just the situation in Iraq, but the fact that we continue to see al Qaeda getting stronger in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, we continue to see anti-American sentiment fanned all cross the Middle East, we are overstretched in a way -- we do not have a strategic reserve at this point… That is not sustainable. That's not smart national security policy, and it's going to change when I'm president.
Nobody knows what the situation in Iraq will be like. To pledge an automatic withdrawal is just insane. A mature politician would’ve been honest and said: “I fully intend to withdraw, but I want to know what the reality is at that moment.”I won’t take up here what Senator McCain and the Republicans would say about the answers given by Clinton and Obama, but I can imagine—“unpatriotic” is the first word that comes to mind.
But I couldn’t help but wonder what the Republicans thought of the Institute for National Strategic Studies’ (INSS) report on the Iraq war issued today, the opening line of which was this:
Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.This report is not from some Leftist think tank in Washington; it is from an arm of the Pentagon. Among other tasks, it produces Joint Force Quarterly, a professional military and security journal published for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After detailing the number of casualties, the dollar costs, and the uncalculated costs to care for veterans of the war, the report goes on with its indictment:
The war’s political impact also has been great. Globally, U.S. standing among friends and allies has fallen.2 Our status as a moral leader has been damaged by the war, the subsequent occupation of a Muslim nation, and various issues concerning the treatment of detainees. At the same time, operations in Iraq have had a negative impact on all other efforts in the war on terror, which must bow to the priority of Iraq when it comes to manpower, materiel, and the attention of decisionmakers. Our Armed Forces—especially the Army and Marine Corps—have been severely strained by the war in Iraq. Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.The sixty page report concludes with this summary and recommendation:
In conclusion, the war in Iraq and its aftermath have exposed a flawed decisionmaking process and weak decision execution mechanisms. In planning for and executing operations in Iraq, basic organizations, organizational cultures, operational procedures, and legislative support systems all have been found wanting and in need of fundamental reform. Our National Security Council staff, Cabinet departments, and especially our Congress have not yet adapted to the demanding requirements of 21st-century complex contingencies. One hopes that, for all of its problems, the decision to invade Iraq and subsequent operations there may point the way to national security reform.Do you suppose President Bush will ever see this document? I hope the members of Congress read it.
Are Senators Clinton and Obama “insane,” as Brooks suggested? Or, are they the responsible ones who see the necessity of getting out of Iraq as soon as possible? What do you think?