What Did Obama Learn in Iraq?

The senator hasn’t shown us much yet.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq was so presidential that at moments, he sounded like our current White House resident. When Karen Tumulty of Time asked Obama what he’d learned on his trip, he said, “It confirmed a lot of my beliefs.” Lara Logan of CBS asked him if he was ever in doubt that he could lead the country in war as commander in chief, and he answered, “Never.”

After seven and a half years of George Bush, we should pause when a man auditioning for president says that the facts confirmed his beliefs and that he’s never in doubt. As Obama himself has warned us at other moments, these are signs that a fearless leader may be letting ideology or rigidity steer him in the wrong direction. We know, from his books, if nothing else, that Barack Obama, in fact, goes through life thinking in subtle, nuanced, and interesting ways. He’s probably got lots of complex input from his visit to Iraq that he’s dissecting and analyzing. But he’s not sharing much. And what he has shared on the occasion of his big trip hasn’t been very nourishing.

Before Obama flew to Baghdad, I asked his top foreign-policy adviser, Susan Rice, what kinds of questions he’d asked of his advisers over the months to test whether his Iraq withdrawal plan still matched the realities on the ground in Iraq. Rice gave me no examples. And now that the trip is over, we have no better sense of how Sen. Obama thinks about Iraq. It’s not that I expect grand revelations. But Obama still holds the same policy views he did more than a year and a half ago, even though a lot has changed since then in Iraq, and a lot of those events appear to contradict his earlier views. We know that Obama hasn’t moved, but we don’t know, really, why that’s so.

The main complexity Obama has to confront in Iraq is the apparent success of the most recent phase of U.S. military strategy, of which the troop surge was a key part. Violence has come down from stratospheric heights. The success is relative (violence is still at 2005 levels), but the situation is far better than Obama predicted. When he voted against the surge in January 2007, he claimed on more than one occasion that it would lead to increased casualties and sectarian violence. It didn’t. How’d he get that one wrong? In January 2007, Obama claimed that the Iraqi government would make no hard choices if the United States stayed. But they have made hard choices. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched incursions into Basra and confronted cleric Muqtada Sadr, both of which helped pave the way for the Sunni faction’s return to the government. This is not enough progress to suggest Iraq is anywhere near stable, but like the drop in violence, it’s more than Obama predicted.

These are not academic questions. Some people would say the vote on the surge was one of Obama’s most important as a senator. As Obama pointed out regularly during the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war, a person’s past vote tells you something about his or her judgment. Obama has talked a lot about the clarity of his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. He also once suggested that if he’d been forced to cast an actual vote for or against the Iraq war as a senator, his view might have been complicated. On the surge, we get a chance to watch Obama grapple with similar complexities in real time. Or, at least, we should.

Obama’s take on the surge also tells us how he processes information about Iraq. This has direct bearing on how he shapes his policy for the country today. The same choices are in play—will military tactics or withdrawal get the Iraqis to make political progress? If Obama was wrong about the tactical gains that would be made by the new strategy and wrong about how the Iraqi political leaders would react, can his larger theory about how Iraqis will respond  to a troop pullout remain intact? Perhaps, but he has the burden of explanation. Does he elide contradictions, claim they’re irrelevant, and generally spin? In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, he suggested that he’d always said the surge would decrease violence in Iraq. That’s not just spin. It’s not true. At the time Bush announced the surge, Obama said: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

The surge that Obama opposed had two parts to it: an increase in troops and a bet on a new military strategy. Obama opposed the additional troops; he also opposed a host of other new tactics Gen. Petraeus tried, arguing they would not lead to political improvement. Even if you agree with the argument that the additional brigades didn’t change much in Iraq on their own, you still have to account for whether the overall Petraeus strategy shift worked to assist the positive developments among Sunnis and Sadr’s Shiite militia. Obama suggests the military had almost no role in the Anbar Awakening and the decision by Sadr’s militia to stand down—that the two sets of events merely happened “at the same time.” Military leaders think they had a role in bringing about these improvements. (This might be a bigger dis of the brass than his conflict with them over a timeline for withdrawal.) What did he learn on his trip that suggests he’s right and the generals are wrong? Did nothing on the trip shade his view?

These questions are linked to the big looming problem in Iraq—the slow pace of political reform—and how U.S. policy fixes that problem. Obama maintains that whatever gains the new strategy has produced on the political front, they haven’t been enough. Only by setting his timetable for withdrawal will Iraqis shape up and make hard choices. This has always been at the heart of his policy, and when asked about the success of the surge, Obama doubled down on the idea that only withdrawal could get the Iraqis moving. Terry Moran of ABC asked if he would vote for the surge knowing what he knows now. He said he would not. He suggested withdrawal might have yielded the same or better results as the Petraeus strategy. Did he get any new evidence on his trip to support this theory?

Obama once argued that the Anbar Awakening of September 20006, in which Sunni tribesmen turned against al-Qaida, started because Democrats took control of Congress. (The awakening started months before the 2006 election, but never mind, McCain also mangled the timeline this week.) Obama’s theory was that since Democrats had promised to withdraw troops, Sunnis started taking their affairs into their own hands. But given that Congress never made good on its promise to reduce funding or troop levels, and in fact troop levels increased, why didn’t Sunni violence go up? What did Obama learn on his trip that’s relevant here?

Will Obama expand on his thinking about these Iraq specifics in the coming days? Politically, it would probably be a bad idea for him to do so. Obama looks like he’s on the right side of the moment. The Iraqi prime minister has validated his plan for a 16-month withdrawal timeline, and the Bush administration is talking in a similar way. For months, Obama has called for engagement with Iran and now that’s what the administration is doing. So, too, on Afghanistan, which he’s been focusing on for months. Though he deftly used his Democratic opponents’ past votes during the primaries to argue he had better judgment, he’ll now seek to take advantage of voters’ preference for thinking about the future. “Let’s not re-fight the past,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey in an Obama campaign statement criticizing McCain for his obsession over Obama’s position on the surge.

Perhaps Obama doesn’t want to share his views because his inquisitive mind sometimes takes him to contradictory places. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes about pulling aside reporters who were living in Iraq to get their views about the war. He expected them to agree with his call for a troop reduction. They didn’t. They said a troop reduction would start a civil war. Obama called for a troop reduction anyway, but we know his mind is alive enough to capture and remember a piece of data that didn’t fit with his pre-existing views. Are contradictory observations fine for a book but off-limits when you’re a political candidate? Admitting you’re wrong, or even that your thinking has evolved, is risky for a politician. Maybe too risky. That’s certainly what George Bush believes.