Middle East expert Dan Senor questions Sen. Obama's comments regarding the Iraq War

January 14th, 2008

Obama's Obscene Iraq Fantasy

By Dan Senor
New York Post

The punditry's focus on horse – race analysis of the '08 race has obscured a remarkable event: The debates of the last few days actually taught us something meaningful about the difference between the two parties on national security.

Saturday night, the Republican candidates spent some 20 minutes in a detailed and informed argument about the nature of the Islamist threat. They demonstrated a grasp of realities and surprising detail as well as intelligent disagreement.

The candidates, for example, discussed Sayyid Qutb's influence. Qutb isn't exactly a household name here, let alone the stuff of focus-group-tested messages – but he matters. An Egyptian author and the leading intellectual of the radical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of the 1950s and '60s, he was executed by the Egyptian government. His extensive Koranic commentary has helped shape Islamist interpretations of jihad: Ayman Zawahiri, who went on to mentor Osama bin Laden, was one of Qutb's ardent followers. Bin Laden himself read Qutb regularly.

The Republican debate opened with several references to Qutb's influence on the intellectual foundations of the war being waged against us.

The GOP candidates also discussed the notion of whether the US response to the 9/11 attacks provoked the broader Islamist war. The candidates (also linking to Qutb) cited the Muslim Brotherhood's assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, all the attacks dating back to the 1960s and the attacks since 9/11 in places like Bali and London. Indeed, they noted, terrorists have been on offense against the Western world and against Muslims in Arab countries since long before we responded to 9/11.

To the 10 million Americans watching, the debate briefly showed that these candidates have been seriously thinking about what we are facing in the War on Terror. By contrast, in the night's second debate, the Democratic candidates jostled to occupy a position at odds with reality – highlighted by Sen. Barack Obama's absurd claim that it was the Democrats' winning control of Congress in November 2006 that led to the turnaround in Iraq's Sunni Anbar province:

“I welcome the genuine reductions of violence that have taken place, although I would point out that much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar province – Sunni tribes – who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what, the Americans may be leaving soon, and we are going to be left very vulnerable to the Shias. We should start negotiating now. That's how you change behavior.”

To his credit, Obama's reputation for integrity and his classy political style don't suggest that he would peddle something so intellectually dishonest simply to make an opportunistic point. But that's what makes his analysis on Iraq so troubling: How can he really believe it?

Even those who dispute the role of the surge in the “Anbar Awakening” recognize that al Qaeda atrocities were the initial impetus behind the shift in tribal attitudes – not Democratic victories at the polls.

Military expert Anthony Cordesman, a frequent critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, wrote a report that reflects the attitude of the serious-minded skeptics of the “surge”: “There is real opportunity that did not exist at the start of the year. What is critical to understand, however is that while the surge strategy has had value in some areas, much of this progress has not been the function of the surge strategy.”

Cordesman argues that tribal leaders rose up against al Qaeda not because of added US forces but in response to al Qaeda's “repressive efforts to enforce its view of Islamic custom, forced marriages, kidnappings and extortions, and killings of local and tribal leaders.” (He does give some credit to the changes in US strategy associated with the surge.) Even Gen. David Petraeus cautiously attributes progress to a number of factors, including Sunni tribes' frustration with al Qaeda and Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr's cease-fire.

Yet, whatever the impetus for the Sunni turnaround, everyone who has seriously studied this issue shares the view that it took nearly a year of hard fighting by US troops to help Anbar's tribal leaders retake their province from the terrorists. Army Col. Sean Macfarland's brigade began clearing Ramadi in June 2006; his successor, Col. John Charlton, continued the fight with the benefit of the surge's added Marine forces (the equivalent of three extra Marine battalions) in 2007.

As US forces with larger numbers began to work with Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere, the Iraqis never said, Well, since the Democrats won and you guys are on your way out, we guess we'd better talk to the Shia. Instead, they continually asked: “Are you going to stay this time and protect us?” It was only when brave fighters like Macfarland, Charlton and their fellow commanders and soldiers were able to say unequivocally, “Yes, we will stay with you,” that Anbaris and other Sunnis began working with us and the Iraqi government.

For Obama to try to take credit for that turnaround (or to attribute it to Rep. Rahm Emmanuel's and Sen. Charles Schumer's success in managing the '06 congressional elections) raises questions about his distance from reality. He should clarify this soonest.

Obama's opposition to the war was authentic and thoughtful. But to then oppose the surge, vote against funds for our troops in combat – and then take credit for the success they earned in spite of his opposition? Amazing.

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