The Surge Trap.

July 27, 2008

The Surge Trap.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, July 27, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Barack Obama was on Meet the Press from London, completing his week-long tour of Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, and points in the Middle East. The first “flashpoint” of interest was when Obama got into a debate with Brokaw about the improved situation on the ground in Iraq. Brokaw challenged him, ‘Why won’t you give credit to the surge for dramatically changing the dynamics and improving the situation there?’ And Obama said, ‘Look, our troops have done a terrific job. They’ve done what they were asked to do. But there are many factors that go into the changing dynamics.’ Then he cited the political decision by the Sunni leadership to “switch sides,” to stop fighting the Americans and start fighting Al Qaeda. Brokaw says, ‘But the troop presence is what created the space for those kinds of things to happen.’ Obama replied, ‘You can’t just single out a single factor and credit it with the changes. And, you’ve got to look more closely at the political dynamics and shifts and how much political and diplomatic initiatives impacted.’ His international trip is a window into Obama’s philosophy about changing the American position in the world.

Newman: Yes, through diplomacy, by working more closely with our allies, and by not making pre-emptive moves of the sort exemplified by what the Bush people did in Iraq. Maybe there’s some hidden booby trap here that I’m not aware of because I’m not as politically astute as I might be relative to running campaigns of this kind – by “of this kind,” I mean campaigns that have a chance of winning – but I don’t know why Obama doesn’t just say to Brokaw in response to his question, How could I support the surge when I don’t support the war? People would say of me – and they’d be right – that I was a fool, an inconsistent fool…. I can see why McCain would support the surge, given that he supported the war.

Salit: That’s Obama’s argument against McCain.

Newman: Yes. And Obama could add But since we’re talking about the surge, it does raise the question of why we needed a surge in the first place. If there had been more troops at the start, it might have been the case that we wouldn’t have needed a surge. You’re the ones who waited, so that the surge was required. Not me. The reason that I didn’t do that is that I wasn’t supporting the war. So this is an interesting rhetorical trick that you’re engaging in to make it seem as if I’m the one who missed on the surge. I didn’t miss on the surge. You missed on the war. And then you were required to have a surge to accomplish some of the things that, in my opinion, might have been accomplished much earlier by simply not being there. So don’t lay the surge trip on me. Is there a political trap there? I don’t see it.

Salit: That’s a good question. I don’t know if the Obama strategy is to be less combative about how the decision to go to war was wrong. For example, in the speech that he gave in Berlin, to huge crowds, he talked about that, but he talked about it almost obliquely, towards the very end. On the one hand, you could say he assumes that everybody in Germany knows that he opposed the war. That’s why they’re there…200,000 people came out in the street in Berlin because the German people opposed the war. So much so that the Chancellor has been able to commit only a minimal number of troops to Afghanistan. But, I don’t know, Fred. This isn’t a direct answer to your question because, in my mind, he could do that without there being any political downside.

Newman: You do think so?

Salit: I do. However, whether or not he could pull it off isn’t the only operative criteria. A related thing that’s going on with Obama on the foreign policy side right now is that the Democratic Party is working with him – and through him – to redefine the Democrats’ profile on foreign policy. He’s brought a lot of experts in, and presumably that’s a good thing. But politically the Democratic Party thinks that it has the opportunity to grab from the Republicans a higher level of public confidence on national security and foreign policy. The Democrats tend to have more support from the American people on domestic issues and economic issues and trade issues. On foreign policy, historically, it’s been the case that the Republicans are considered more credible.

Newman: Wouldn’t what I’m offering address that?

Salit: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Maybe they don’t like it because it emphasizes the “anti-war” of his position and the Democrats are ambivalent about how to position on that.

Newman: I don’t think it needs to emphasize the “anti-war” side. It would emphasize the way in which this war was brought about, both domestically and internationally. After all, in the minds of many military people, there should have been more troops in Iraq in the first place. The surge is relative to what you had in the first place, that’s what a surge is. But, Obama says, why would I be supportive of a surge at all in a war where I don’t think any troops should have been sent in the first place? I’m not against all wars, Obama has said that. But this war violated foreign policy principles. This war was handled in a way that was completely opposed to the national interest of the United States.

Salit: That’s a strong argument.

Newman: It takes you into the particularities of this war and how this administration conducted this war. The people who support this administration are stuck with that, even if they say, Well, I didn’t like Donald Rumsfeld. Fine. But you supported a presidency which carried out this war in a way which is antithetical to the interests of the American people and the United States of America. You have to take responsibility for that. And you can’t say, Well, it’s all right now because we’re having a surge. You’re having a surge because the way in which you carried out this war was a failure.

Salit: And you were incompetent.

Newman: Yes, that’s what it’s a measure of, your incompetency. Now is Obama saving this argument for the debates? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the plan. They might be smart enough to think that McCain’s hanging himself on this surge thing, so they want him to get deeper and deeper into it, before they move in on it.

Salit: Could be. Brokaw quoted David Brooks from the New York Times, saying that Brooks thought that the problem with the Berlin speech was that it was too ephemeral, too much about “We have to unify to save Darfur. We have to unify to eliminate nuclear proliferation. We have to unify to deal with the Iranian threat, etc.,” without any pragmatic particulars.

Newman: I think someone at the New York Times, who is very high up, said to David Brooks, We don’t need you here to be a liberal. That ain’t why we hired you, pal. You better start playing the conservative or else there’s no point in us paying you anything.

Salit: Some people objected to Obama’s use of the rhetorical formulation “people of the world.” Several times during the speech he said, “people of the world, people of Berlin, we have to do such and such.” Some critics objected to this world-citizen-like language, that it was too much hubris or too internationalist, as in Who’s this guy? Two years ago, he was a state senator from Illinois. Now he’s talking to the “people of the world.”

Newman: Not all that long ago, capitalists were making money by running a tool and die shop down the block in Decatur, Illinois. They globalized the world. How can you blame that on Obama? The capitalists did a much better job of globalizing the world than the Communist International ever did.

Salit: True enough.

Newman: The environmental issues, the economic issues, all these issues have become global issues. Of course, Obama’s talking to the people of the world. I have no problem with that at all. In fact, I feel very positive about it.

Salit: Brokaw opened the interview by showing polling data in which McCain gets higher ratings from the American people as a prospective commander-in-chief and has more experience as it relates to foreign policy and so forth. Brokow asked Obama to respond to that. Obama said, ‘It would be interesting if you changed the question and you asked people who was in a better position to bring about change. I would win those polls. If you ask who’s the person who would reinforce the status quo? John McCain would win that one. And since everything we’re seeing and hearing from the American people is that they want change, they want change in foreign policy, they want change in domestic policy, they want these kinds of changes, it would follow from that that the person who’s best equipped to bring about change is the person who’s best equipped to lead the country.’ That was an interesting way for Obama to go with that question.

Newman: He could have also included a version of the point I made a moment ago. If you’re going to accept that the United States should continue a policy of getting into wars we shouldn’t get into, pre-emptive wars without consultation…if we’re going to continue to do that, then who would you rather have in the presidency? Probably, John McCain. Well, that’s a set up.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But, if what you’re going to say is that the American people want to change that part of U.S. policy – not to eliminate war, but to eliminate pre-emptive wars which alienate us from the rest of the world, then who is the better leader? Well, Obama will come out ahead.

Salit: Yes. Thanks, Fred.