Obama and the Iraq Withdrawal Campaign Pledge

Governing, as President-elect Obama is undoubtedly discovering, is different from campaigning. The issues suddenly appear more complex, the solutions less obvious, and the political players are less easily identified as either supporters or opponents. Governing does not mean the end of politics, but the political process becomes exceedingly more complicated, in large part because it is a repeated game in which the president’s choice on any single issue must be considered in light of its probable impact on other, many as yet unknown, decisions.

To illustrate, consider Obama’s stance on the Iraq war. More than any other issue, it was his opposition to this war, beginning with his claim that he would have opposed the resolution authoring military force in Iraq, which brought him the support of the netroots and the Democratic left that proved so crucial to his election. Even before that, as a member of the Senate beginning in 2007, he introduced legislation that would have removed all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. Having declared his candidacy for presidency, however, and in light of the evidence that the troop “surge” which he opposed was contributing to growing stability in Iraq, Obama modified his position, if not his underlying principles, by embracing a plan to remove all combat troops from Iraq within a 16-month period, or by mid-2010. When he showed signs of modifying that pledge during the campaign, McCain accused him of “flip-flopping”, at which point Obama reiterated his initial pledge to support the 16-month timetable. He stuck to this pledge even after meeting with General Petraeus, the author of the surge strategy, who opposed the Obama timetable. The AP report of Obama’s meeting with Petraeus stated, “Noting that the job of president and that of Gen. David Petraeus were different, Obama said he was setting ‘a strategic vision of what’s best for U.S. national security’ that he believes must include a mid-2010 target for removing American combat forces.”

Now that he is president, however, he inherits a status of force agreement negotiated by the Bush administration that, on its face, differs from the Obama campaign pledge. The Bush-negotiated agreement, which was recently ratified by the Iraqi parliament on the eve of the expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq, allows U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq until the start of 2012, although under gradually tighter restrictions, including the removal of US combat troops from urban areas beginning next June.

From Obama’s perspective, however, this much is clear: the agreement continues the U.S. military presence for up to three more years, or more than 1 ½ years longer than what Obama promised on the campaign trail. As such, it is sure to add more fuel to the fire started by the netroots on the left who are convinced that Obama has backed away from his campaign pledge to be an agent of change. As one of the netroots argued in reaction to the news about the status of force agreement: “Why should Obama obey it? To honor the good word of George W Bush to his puppet government?  I don’t get it.” Note that the agreement is still subject to a nationwide referendum next summer. And much of the implementing details are still to be worked out. Nonetheless, it will fall to Obama, as president, to oversee the implementation or modification of this agreement from the U.S. side. Certainly he will be asked about it during the transition period. As a result, he faces some decisions. Should he:

  1. Stick to his campaign pledge by having the Democratic majority in Congress renegotiate the status in force agreement to reduce the American occupation to no more than 16 months, effectively removing all U.S. combat troops by June 30, 2010, rather than December, 2011. Remember, Obama has argued that it is wrong for Bush to negotiate a status of force agreement that must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, without also asking congressional approval, particularly an agreement that involves the use of military force. So he can justify his decision to bring this to Congress. His rallying cry should be, “I wasn’t elected to continue four more years of the failed Bush-Cheney policies, but instead to bring change to Washington.” By renegotiating the agreement to bring it in line with his campaign pledge, he gains the added benefit of mollifying the netroots on the Left who have grown increasingly suspicious of his ideological leanings.
  2. Buy some time by claiming that, although he opposes the Bush-Cheney policy, he will not, once in office, act in haste to revoke the agreement until he has time to consult with members of his foreign policy team. One of his first actions as president will be to send members of that team to Iraq, to assess the situation in consultation with our military on the ground there. Any decision in Iraq must be made in the context of our overall strategy for fighting global terror, which will also necessitate lengthy conversations with our allies. Until this takes place it would be unwise to move too hastily to revoke or renegotiate the Iraq agreement. In the interim, Obama will hope that the declining civilian and military death toll and apparent growing stability in Iraq will continue, thus allowing him to bring troops home at an accelerated pace, even if the Bush agreement remains in place. Alternatively, the Iraqis might reject the agreement next summer through the referendum process, in which case Obama has political cover for bringing the troops home earlier.
  3. Claim victory by arguing that the Bush agreement, by laying out a timetable for troop withdrawal, is consistent “with the principles underlying my campaign pledge”, even if it allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq “a while” longer. Note as well that for several years Bush resisted all efforts to adopt a timetable for withdrawal, and it was only after pressure from Obama during the campaign that the Bush administration finally reversed itself and signed the status of force agreement laying out the troop withdrawal guidelines. By accepting the status in force agreement, Obama also signals his willingness to work within the broader network of agreements that govern relations between foreign nations, in contrast to Bush’s penchant for acting unilaterally. Obama should then immediately shift the focus to Afghanistan, citing it as the main front in the war on terror. Let Iraq recede from the limelight, and quietly implement the Bush policy.

So, which will it be? Which would you recommend (or would you opt for something else, or a combination of these choices?)  Obama must choose – even if that choice is to make no decision.  He no longer has the luxury of basing his candidacy on ill-defined “change” – he is now the “decider-in-chief”. His Iraq withdrawal pledge was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but implementing it may look a lot different from the perspective as president than it did when running for office.

In thinking about the difference between campaigning and governing, I’m often reminded of the comment by the celebrated campaign strategist and Ragin’ Cajun James Carville who, in discussing how to implement health care reform at the start of the Clinton presidency in 1993, famously observed: “I now see this as real. When I do a campaign and f—k up, someone just loses. But if you f–k up, you f—k up the country.”



  1. Initially, I would have to say the obvious: Obama knew and knows that governing is different from campaigning…and did not just discover that fact.

    The so called agmt between Bush and Iraq (so called because it still awaits a nationwide referendum and SHOULD also involve a vote in Congress) is not final, but even in its present state, does not mandate anything except the permission by Iraq to the USA to stay UNTIL 2012…it says nothing about the right to leave sooner. I believe that Obama meant what he stated and will renegotiate the so called contract, and will involve others (Congress, advisors etc) in ending the war in Iraq well before 2012… and as a part of the renegotiations, will require more of Iraq during the final phase including the requirement that Iraq use a good portion of the $53 billion escrow oil pot to assist the USA in its costs of assisting Iraq.

    I do not see any signs that Obama’s supporters are ” growing suspicious of his ideological leanings” at all and wonder where this suggested phrase came from….the facts are to the contrary and the continued solid support is through the press and media in its praise for Obama’s considerate actions and appointments to date.

  2. Bruce,

    Two quick responses to your very good comment: first, it may be obvious to you that Obama knows the difference between governing and campaigning, but history suggests that the distinction is often lost on incoming presidents. In particular, they often act as if the strategy for passing legislation is the same as that for getting elected – if your plans are opposed, take your case to the people and use your public support as leverage. As Clinton discovered with health care, and Bush on social security reform, however, this strategy almost never works.

    As for suspicion on the Left that Obama is not as progressive as some had hoped, you need only read the comments section on any number of blog sites, ranging from the Huffington Post to the Daily Kos. They are grumbling, to put it mildly, in response to a number of Obama’s initial actions, ranging from supporting Lieberman’s efforts to retain his homeland security chairmanship to appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State to placing Larry Summers in the West Wing as the key economic adviser. To many on the Left, this is not change – this is the status quo all over again.

  3. Matt,

    Status of ForceSSSSS. Not “force,” singular.

    Also, there’s some debate in Washington as to whether it’s properly called a “status of forces agreement” (delightfully acronymed as SoFA here) because it specifies limits on the use of forces that are based in Iraq and includes other obligations that resemble more closely a treaty than a mere SoFA. The Bush Administration prefers SoFA, because they typically don’t require as a legal matter that Congress ratify them.

    I’ll leave the Advice to Presidents to others, as it is typically dangerous for me, on a professional level, to do so.

  4. At the very end of Obama’s national security team announcement, he was asked a question about the timetable for withdrawal and whether he intended to move ahead with his 16 month plan. The New York Times has a transcript. His answer is on the last page, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/us/politics/01text-obama.html?pagewanted=9&sq=Iraq%20withdrawal%20Obama&st=cse&scp=4

    Noting that the SOFA points us in the right direction, he seemed to “claim victory,” arguing that it was consistent with his goals. He also restated his support for his 16 month plan, while stressing the possibility that a residual force would remain beyond 16 months. He then said that he would consult with Secretary Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and commanders on the ground, making adjustments as they deem necessary in order to protect our troops.

    In terms of the three choices you outlined above, Obama seemed to choose option 4: all of the above. He claimed victory, restated his position, bought more time, and immediately shifted the discussion to Afghanistan. This does not seem contradictory to me. Because the SOFA only supplies an upper limit to American forces staying in Iraq and does not provide a withdrawal outline within that, Obama is able to continue to push for his plan without seeming to disregard the Bush agreement.

    What he really seemed to do, however, was buy time. He stressed the need for residual forces after the withdrawal of combat troops and left the composition of such a force vague enough to allow it to be quite substantial. It seems like he is moving in the direction of a position between his 16 month plan and the 3 year Bush plan. Ultimately, I think after he consults more with military officials he will move towards a slower withdrawal, following Dickinson’s option 3. I wonder how much he has already solicited information on the military situation and whether he has more information on what is feasible than he is letting on. Even if he believes his rushed timetable is both right and doable, I don’t see him rejecting the Bush SOFA, because its framework does not necessitate it and because it is progress that he can work from. His statements today seem to suggest that this is the case. He can wield it as a statement from the Iraqi people that they want us out and by speeding up the withdrawal he can argue that he is only improving the agreement.

    I do think he will relax that timetable, however. I just wonder when he will say something more definitive on it. Perhaps not until he is in office.

  5. Matt – I’d be wary of using blog comments as a thermometer for political opinions, anymore than you’d use bathroom graffiti as a window into people’s personal lives. Few are as reasoned & thoughtful (and civil) as these pages. Instead they serve primarily as an outlet to say anything in an extreme fashion, and fish for approval or conflict.

    My sense is that most people on the left recognized Obama as a pragmatist first and foremost, and never bought into the rhetoric that he was the most liberal member of the Senate – his FISA vote made that clear enough earlier in the year. But people want to keep the pressure on from the left-side to avoid letting the right frame the debate – see the “Clinton blew it by tacking left in 1993” myth, as well as the quick attempt to say that this election proved that the US is “a center/right nation.” So highlighting how Obama’s decisions are classically left/moderate might help move the scale back toward something resembling the center after decades of rightward slant.

  6. Jason – First, it’s important to remember that a good part of Obama’s appeal as an agent of change is based on his use of the netroots as the shock troops for his presidential campaign. Given their investment in his presidency, he ignores them at some peril. I would hardly equate their opinions with graffiti on a bathroom wall! Second, the criticism regarding Obama’s initial personnel choices is not restricted to the blogosphere – it comes as well from the mainstream punditry. See, for example, Bob Hebert’s Dec. 2 column.

    Finally, regarding Obama’s voting record – our best measure (Poole-Rosenthal scores) places him as the 10th most liberal Senator in the most recent Congress, with 9 Senators more liberal and 89 more conservative. There’s a reason why those on the Left voted for this guy, and why they are not pleased with his choices so far. For now, I think you are right: they will give him the benefit of the doubt. But if they see him appearing to renege on campaign promises by, for example, using the full three years Bush negotiated before enacting a total pullout of combat troops from Iraq, the Left will not be happy. They didn’t pull the lever for this guy only to discover he’s a pragmatist who governs from the center.

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