Obama Adjusts Iraq Campaign Promise to Reality

"We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose," Mario Cuomo once said. The governor of New York for a decade and, in his day, a possible contender for the presidency elegantly captured the rueful task of all legislators, a task that is now facing President Barack Obama.

Obama's decision, to be announced Friday, to withdraw 90,000 of the 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by August 2010, is a classic example of the gulf between campaigning and governing. Obama campaigned on the notion that Iraq was the bad war, and Afghanistan the good war. His opposition to the Iraq war, and his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his election gave him a critical edge among the Democratic faithful over Hillary Clinton.

But now the occupation of Iraq, however bungled, gives promise of success. The country is a tumultuous democracy, one still threatened by internal conflicts, but by most accounts set on a political course that will make it unique in the Arab world. At the same time, Afghanistan looms as a sinkhole for American efforts, lacking the government, social structure, history or economy that it needs for a successful outcome, however many more troops Obama is persuaded to send beyond the extra 17,000 he has agreed to.

So Obama's decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by next year reflects another truth of American governance: midterm elections matter. If, by November 2010, Obama can say that all American combat brigades are out of Iraq, he can claim a pledge fulfilled. It would have taken 19 rather than 16 months, but it would be a political triumph nonetheless.

Except that it won't be entirely living up to the president's campaign promise. Combat brigades will be out of Iraq, but all U.S. troops are unlikely to be. In reality, what Obama has decided will largely replicate the plan B that his predecessor was offered in fall 2006. Plan A was what became known as "the surge": send in more troops, with the new mission of making space for Iraqi politicians to get their act together. Plan B was to pull out most U.S. forces but to keep a reserve in the country, at bases outside Iraq's cities, to intervene in emergencies, with others embedded as "advisers" in Iraqi units they were training (in reality, commanding in combat). Obama's Friday announcement is expected to indicate that a force of 35,000 to 50,000 forces will stay behind, probably at least until December 2011.

Bush, courageously, chose plan A. Like his father, who late in the run-up to the first Gulf War in 1991 doubled the number of troops he sent, W doubled his bet. It has worked well enough to give his successor the political luxury of opting now for something very closely resembling plan B. Obama's "withdrawal" plan will leave perhaps 50,000 troops in Iraq. Some, now to be termed "advisory training brigades," will be embedded with Iraqi frontline units. Others, to be known as "advisory assistance brigades," will be hunkered out of sight in desert bases but ready to intervene in a crisis. And U.S. air power will still be in Iraq, poised to provide critical reconnaissance and on runway alert to give close air support to beleaguered Iraqi units.

This is an eminently sensible decision by the new president, as is his reported further agreement that withdrawals won't start in earnest until after the crucial Iraqi parliamentary elections this December, which will be a defining test of whether democracy has taken root in Iraq. The provincial elections last month succeeded beyond expectations, but highly charged issues face the infant state: Kurds versus Arabs in the cities of the north and the growing influence of Shia in the south, all while the precipitous collapse of oil prices deprives Baghdad of cash to rebuild the country.

The December elections aren't a sure thing, which is why the continuing presence of U.S. troops is essential. A U.S. military presence is, and will be for some years to come, the ultimate guarantor that the factions within this new state have to settle their political differences by argument and compromise rather than firepower. (Not to mention that they're Iraq's buttress against Iranian efforts to sway Iraqi politics through its support of militia forces.) The more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq to date constitute an ultimate investment in the peaceful future of the place, after all.

Still, Obama's reported decision won't appease his fellow Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, majority leader in the House, is already condemning it. "I don't know what the justification is for 50,000 [troops]," she has said. "I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000; a little bit more than a third, 15,000 to 20,000." General Pelosi seeks to run Iraq from her tactical headquarters on Capitol Hill. President Obama, meanwhile, is making the transition from campaigning to governing.