Howard vs. Obama on Iraq

As has been widely reported, Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s proposal to draw down US forces from Iraq incurred the wrath of Australia’s prime minister John Howard.

Mr Howard said Mr Obama’s plan to pull America’s combat brigades out of Iraq by March 31, 2008, was a strategy that would “destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists”.

“If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats,” Mr Howard said.

(I suppose if al-Qaeda were inclined to draw a circle, it would be around election day in November 2008, assuming Obama is the Democratic nominee.)

I’m still opposed to a hard-and-fast deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. And Obama has said: “The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels. Moreover, it could be suspended if at any point U.S. commanders believe that a further reduction would put American troops in danger.”

On the other hand, the Bush administration’s refusal to set a deadline hasn’t helped stabilize conditions in Iraq either. Notwithstanding Howard, the Bush administration’s post-invasion failures have done more to “destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos” than Obama’s proposal will. I’m inclined to the belief that the US’s ability to shape events in Iraq is steadily slipping and that a prolonged and bloody struggle there is inevitable before the parties reach some kind of agreement. This could have been prevented by more troops and better planning a few years ago, but probably not now. Perhaps, as Obama and others suggest, a deadline for withdrawal of US forces will focus the attention of the parties on deal-making in a way that the current open-ended commitment hasn’t. Perhaps not. But it’s hard for me to look at pictures like this and this, and to believe that it’s worth more of the same to be caught in the middle of a civil war in which both sides consider Americans legitimate targtets.

And I think Obama had a reasonable retort to Howard’s attack on him.

“I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops on the ground now and my understanding is that Mr Howard has deployed 1400,”Mr Obama, who next year could become the first African American to be elected US president, said.

“So, if he’s ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them up to Iraq.

“Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

Indeed if Howard’s commitment to the war in Iraq was equal to that of the United States in terms of relative population, his government would send another 8,000 or so troops. Not much chance of that, I suppose.