Over the last month, Barack Obama's comments about withdrawal have raised major questions about the U.S. commitment to occupying Iraq. The statements Obama has made over the past year, when taken in total, leave no doubt that he is a master of ambiguity and deception.
Obama has made wonderful rhetorical statements aimed at placating the majority of Americans, who have viewed the Iraq war as "not worth it" since late 2004, and supported a timetable for withdrawal since mid-to-late 2005. Obama recently promised: "Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war – responsibly, deliberately, but decisively." This statement was made in response to media complaints about Obama's perceived flip-flopping on the Iraq issue. It’s not difficult to see why this confusion has arisen. Obama has claimed that he is open to "refine[ing]" his policies on Iraq after meeting with military commanders, should he win the presidency. The New York Times described Obama's posturing as driven by his desire "to retain flexibilitiy as violence declines [in Iraq] without abandoning a central promise of his campaign: that if elected, he would end the war."
But has Obama really promised to end the Iraq war? The evidence is not very convincing. Obama has vaguely stated that "the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability." It is true that in the past Obama introduced the "Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007." That plan, however, was precisely what its name suggested, a blueprint for de-escalation, not for withdrawal or for ending the war. The bill promised only to remove all "combat" troops by March of 2008. It did not promise to remove all troops from Iraq, or prohibit plans for permanent military bases – requirements that Democrats have refused to demand. Rather, the plan has always been to retain an extended troop presence in Iraq (perhaps permanently), allegedly in order to train Iraq forces and "fight terrorism."
Opposition on the part of Obama to a full withdrawal was also reflected in the admission (during a primary debate) that he could not guarantee a full withdrawal from Iraq by 2013. This claim demonstrates the full extent of Obama's commitment to misrepresenting his views to the American public. His promise to "end this war now" amounts to little more than propaganda in light of claims that U.S. combat operations will continue for at least the next five years, perhaps indefinitely. It is difficult to see how substantively different this is from Republican presidential front-runner John McCain, who recently claimed he would remove most troops by 2013 as well.
It is true that Obama recently announced a 16 month timetable for the withdrawal of "combat" troops (presumably, sometime in 2010). However, this promise has again been tempered by fuzzy claims that withdrawal is contingent upon conditions on the ground in Iraq – as they are perceived by American political elites. Obama repeated (following the 16 month announcement) that there were "deep concerns" about a timetable "that doesn't take into account what they [military leaders] anticipate might be some sort of change in conditions." Presumably, changing assessments on the part of military leaders would lead to more revisions regarding the prospects for a concrete timetable for withdrawal.
There are consequences that result from Obama's backpedaling and deception. His constantly shifting standards for withdrawal have allowed neoconservative papers like the Washington Post to manipulate his statements in favor of their own pro-war agenda (such manipulation hasn’t proven all that hard to accomplish). This is all too clear in recent editorials in the paper. One editorial from early July 2008, for example, claims that "Mr. Obama can't afford not to update his Iraq policy. Once he has the conversations he's promising with U.S. commanders, he will have plenty of information that 'contradicts the notion' of his rigid plan. Iraq's improvement means that American forces probably can be reduced next year , but it would be folly to begin a forced march out of the country without regard to the risks of renewed sectarian warfare and escalating intervention in the country by Iran and other of Iraq's neighbors."
The Post's distortions have become even more extreme in recent weeks, as is evident in a late July editorial entitled: "Mr. Obama in Iraq: Did He Really Find Support for his Withdrawal Plan?" In full Orwellian style, the article propagandized that "neither U.S. commanders nor Iraq's principal political leaders actually support Obama's [16-month] strategy." The basis for this claim?: "Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's timetable [for withdrawal] would extend at least seven months beyond Mr. Obama's." Maliki's support for a timetable, the Post contends, is actually more in line with General Petraeus' contempt for a timetable, since Maliki has pledged that a withdrawal would be premised upon Iraqi readiness. Presumably, the Post feels that since American military leaders have repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces are not ready to take over security operations, this nullifies the Iraqi public's and political leaders' longstanding support for a withdrawal timetable. While the outrageousness of the Post's logic (or illogic) and the severity of its contempt for the people of Iraq are truly baffling, these conditions are the inevitable result of an Obama campaign that's constantly shifting its promises and standards on Iraq.
American politics need not be dominated by such spin and propaganda on the part of both Democratic and Republican parties and the media. However, a substantive change in electoral politics can only be premised upon the public's demands for more transparency from Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Presidential candidates have demonstrated their longstanding commitment to spin, at the expense of sincere, open dialogue. Only increased activism and public criticism of this spin will produce serious changes to the American propaganda state.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches American Government and Politics of Africa, Asia, and Latin America at Illinois State University. He is the author of "Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (2008). He can be reached at: email@example.com