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Obama’s Lesson From His First Iraq Trip

From the great man’s second autobiography The Audacity Of Hope, pp 173-6:

The landing at Baghdad International Airport turned out not to be so bad—although I was thankful that we couldn’t see out the windows as the C-130 bucked and banked and dipped its way down…

I would spend only a day and a half in Iraq, most of it in the Green Zone, a ten-mile wide area of central Baghdad that had once been the heart of Saddam Hussein’s government but was now a U.S.-controlled compound, surrounded along its perimeter by blast walls and barbed wire. Reconstruction teams briefed us about the difficulty of maintaining electrical power and oil production in the face of insurgent sabotage; intelligence officers described the growing threat of sectarian militias and their infiltration of Iraqi security forces. Later, we met with members of the Iraqi Election Commission, who spoke with enthusiasm about the high turnout during the recent election, and for an hour we listened to U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad, a shrewd, elegant man with world-weary eyes, explain the delicate shuttle diplomacy in which he was now engaged, to bring Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions into some sort of workable unity government.

In the afternoon we had an opportunity to have lunch with some of the troops in the huge mess hall just off the swimming pool of what had once been Saddam’s presidential palace. They were a mix of regular forces, reservists, and National Guard units, from big cities and small towns, blacks and whites and Latinos, many of them on their second or third tour of duty. They spoke with pride as they told us what their units had accomplished—building schools, protecting electrical facilities, leading newly trained Iraqi soldiers on patrol, maintaining supply lines to those in far-flung regions of the country. Again and again, I was asked the same question: Why did the U.S. press only report on bombings and killings? There was progress being made, they insisted—I needed to let the folks back home know that their work was not in vain.

It was easy, talking to these men and women, to understand their frustration, for all the Americans I met in Iraq, whether military or civilian, impressed me with their dedication, their skill, and their frank acknowledgment not only of the mistakes that had been made but also of the difficulties of the task that still lay ahead. Indeed, the entire enterprise in Iraq bespoke American ingenuity, wealth, and technical know-how; standing inside the Green Zone or any of the large operating bases in Iraq and Kuwait, one could only marvel at the ability of our government to essentially erect entire cities within hostile territory, self-contained communities with their own power and sewage systems, computer lines and wireless networks, basketball courts and ice cream stands. More than that, one was reminded of that unique quality of American optimism that everywhere was on display—the absence of cynicism despite the danger, sacrifice, and seemingly interminable setbacks, the insistence that at the end of the day our actions would result in a better life for a nation of people we barely knew.

And yet, three conversations during the course of my visit would remind me of just how quixotic our efforts in Iraq still seemed—how, with all the American blood, treasure, and the best of intentions, the house we were building might be resting on quicksand. The first conversation took place in the early evening, when our delegation held a press conference with a group of foreign correspondents stationed in Baghdad. After the Q&A session, I asked the reporters if they’d stay for an informal, off-the-record conversation. I was interested, I said, in getting some sense of life outside the Green Zone. They were happy to oblige, but insisted they could only stay for forty-five minutes—it was getting late, and like most residents of Baghdad, they generally avoided traveling once the sun went down.

As a group, they were young, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, all of them dressed casually enough that they could pass for college students… None of them thought that the elections would bring about significant improvement in the security situation. I asked them if they thought a U.S. troop withdrawal might ease tensions, expecting them to answer in the affirmative. Instead, they shook their heads.

“My best guess is the country would collapse into civil war within weeks,” one of the reporters told me. “One hundred, maybe two hundred thousand dead. We’re the only thing holding this place together.”

I had difficulty sleeping that night; instead, I watched the Redskins game, piped in live via satellite to the pool house once reserved for Saddam and his guests. Several times I muted the TV and heard mortar fire pierce the silence. The following morning, we took a Black Hawk to the Marine base in Fallujah, out in the arid, western portion of Iraq called Anbar Province. Some of the fiercest fighting against the insurgency had taken place in Sunni-dominated Anbar, and the atmosphere in the camp was considerably grimmer than in the Green Zone; just the previous day, five Marines on patrol had been killed by roadside bombs or small-arms fire. The troops here looked rawer as well, most of them in their early twenties, many still with pimples and the unformed bodies of teenagers.

The general in charge of the camp had arranged a briefing, and we listened as the camp’s senior officers explained the dilemma facing U.S. forces: With improved capabilities, they were arresting more and more insurgent leaders each day, but like street gangs back in Chicago, for every insurgent they arrested, there seemed to be two ready to take his place. Economics, and not just politics, seemed to be feeding the insurgency—the central government had been neglecting Anbar, and male unemployment hovered around 70 percent.

“For two or three dollars, you can pay some kid to plant a bomb,” one of the officers said. “That’s a lot of money out here.”

By the end of the briefing, a light fog had rolled in, delaying our flight to Kirkuk. While waiting, my foreign policy staffer, Mark Lippert, wandered off to chat with one of the unit’s senior officers, while I struck up a conversation with one of the majors responsible for counterinsurgency strategy in the region. He was a soft-spoken man, short and with glasses; it was easy to imagine him as a high school math teacher. In fact, it turned out that before joining the Marines he had spent several years in the Philippines as a member of the Peace Corps. Many of the lessons he had learned there needed to be applied to the military’s work in Iraq, he told me. He didn’t have anywhere near the number of Arabic-speakers needed to build trust with the local population. We needed to improve cultural sensitivity within U.S. forces, develop long-term relationships with local leaders, and couple security forces to reconstruction teams, so that Iraqis could see concrete benefits from U.S. efforts. All this would take time, he said, but he could already see changes for the better as the military adopted these practices throughout the country.

Our escort officer signaled that the chopper was ready to take off. I wished the major luck and headed for the van. Mark came up beside me, and I asked him what he’d learned from his conversation with the senior officer.

“I asked him what he thought we needed to do to best deal with the situation.” “What did he say?”


Please note that while the soldiers and and even the reporters on the ground said there would be chaos and genocide if the US precipitously left Iraq, Mr. Obama instead decided to take the advice of his “foreign policy” staffer — that we should leave.

So much for ‘fact-finding.’

And of course we can expect about the same results from the great man’s latest campaign swing through Iraq and Afghanistan.

By the way, in anticipation of the burning question — who is Mark Lippert, here is his (probably self-scribed) entry in Wikipedia:

Mark Lippert

Mark W. Lippert is Barack Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser and plays a key role in his presidential campaign. He is a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Reserve who recently did a tour in Iraq, where he served as an intelligence officer for the Navy SEALs. Previously he worked for five years in the Senate Appropriations Committee Foreign Operations Subcommittee. He also handled foreign policy and defense issues for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Lippert grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He started as Senator Patrick Leahy policy advisor and Vermont political organizer. He joined the Navy Reserve in 2005.

Yes, we should base US foreign policy on the opinions of Lieutenant Junior Grade and a former Patrick “leaky” Leahy policy advisor.


This article was posted by Steve on Friday, July 25th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

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