Obama, the Dukakis Trap, and Meeting Sistani

Barack Obama is considering a trip to Iraq this summer. I fear he has been forced into this visit by John McCain, who keeps taunting him on his limited foreign policy experience, saying he has not been to Iraq since 2006 and so does not understand how the “surge” was “victorious.”

McCain’s taunts are ridiculous. His foreign policy-making experience is also limited, since he was not in the executive. To the extent he has been involved in others’ foreign policy initiatives, he has been wrong most of the time. He demanded more money in the 1980s for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, some of whom later morphed into al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He coddled Pakistani military dictators such as Gen. Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Gen. Zia promoted the fundamentalist Jama’at-i Islami and the ‘Islamization’ of Pakistani law. Musharraf declined to follow through on former PM Nawaz Sharif’s pledge to send in a SWAT team to get Usama Bin Laden, in fall of 1999. McCain also was tight with Ahmad Chalabi and helped get up the Iraq War in the first place.

So much for the Arizona Senator’s ‘experience’ and good foreign policy sense.

Moreover, as CNN war correspondent Michael Ware observed from Baghdad recently, any VIP visit to Iraq, cocooned inside the US military and the Green Zone, would be more dog-and-pony show than fact-finding mission. Guerrilla wars are not apparent on the surface. People shop, cars circulate, things look all right. But then in this neighborhood or that there is a bomb, there are killings. Neighborhoods slowly change their ethnic complexion. Outsiders wouldn’t even notice it. Over time, the horror of guerrilla war, like a determined serial killer, imprints itself on the society. The fear stays in the back of peoples’ minds. But you couldn’t see it on a VIP visit.

Moreover, the McCain camp is hoping for a ‘Dukakis moment.’ They hope they can get Obama looking awkward or nerdy, trying to play soldier in Iraq. Then they can do a remake of Bush Sr.’s notorious hit job on then presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

So here is some advice for Senator Obama if he goes to Iraq.

  • See if a meeting can be set up with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani has enormous moral authority in Iraq and is known for his support for national unity. No one could slam Obama for meeting with the Grand Ayatollah. Paul Bremer corresponded with him. He is not a radical and is well respected by the US military. And, when Obama comes to debate McCain, the Grand Ayatollah would give him a trump card. “Senator McCain speaks of having US bases in Iraq for a hundred years. Grand Ayatollah Sistani and other key Iraqi leaders told me to my face that any such plans are completely unacceptable to them. How likely is it that the McCain fatwa can be more popular or legitimate in Iraq than the Sistani fatwa?”

    Sistani doesn’t meet many foreigners. But he has met UN special envoys and a wide range of politicians. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he would meet Obama. Providing security in Najaf could be done. US Ambassador Ryan Crocker was in Najaf recently. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim could set it up and help guarantee it.

  • As a reader noted below, he should go to Amman, Jordan, and meet with community leaders of the over 500,000 Iraqi expatriates there to highlight the plight of Iraqi displaced persons.
  • Senator Obama is not to try to drive any military equipment while there.
  • If at all possible he is not to be photographed wearing a combat helmet.
  • He should meet with the Iraqi government leaders, but should also seek meetings beyond that circle. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as the leaders of the major parties–Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani and even Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (Iraqi Islamic Party which is Sunni fundamentalist), will tend to feed him the Green Zone party line. He should also meet with the leaders of the Fadhila Party (powerful in the key port of Basra) and with secular nationalists. If an unobjectionable Sadrist MP could be found, and no photographs were allowed, that would be a good meeting.

    McCain will try to focus on the US military in Iraq, which is a diversion. The question is Iraq and Iraqis. What do they want? Where are their politics going? What relationship do they want with the US.

    By going to Iraqi political and civil society, Obama can elude the Dukakis trap that McCain is trying to set for him.

    He can moreover shift the discourse from whether the US military can be “victorious” in Iraq to what Iraqis want. Since the Republican talking points have for so long focused on bestowing democracy on Iraq, that would be an effective counter to McCain’s ‘victory’ narrative.

    An informed and experienced observer writes:

    ‘ to your . . . posting today, I would add that Obama should be accompanied by someone like Jim Webb or Chuck Hagel for their military smarts and /or Joe Biden on the political side. Obama should also ask for meetings with one or two of Iraq’s top military leaders. Finally, he should bring along his own interpreters and should not necessarily feel impelled to include US officials/military in all of his meetings. His interlocutors might be much more candid in such a setting. ‘