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Why Obama Must Go to Iraq

By PETE HEGSETH
June 5, 2008

Earlier this year, I spent five days in Iraq, walking the same streets in Baghdad where I had served two years earlier as an infantry platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division.

The visit reinforced for me not only the immense complexity of the war – so often lost in our domestic political debate – but also the importance of taking the time to visit Iraq to talk with the soldiers and Marines serving on the front lines in order to grasp the changing dynamics of a fluid battlefield.

It is for this reason that the failure of Sen. Barack Obama to travel to Iraq over the past two and a half years is worrisome, and a legitimate issue in this presidential election.

Since his election to the United States Senate in 2004, Mr. Obama has traveled to Iraq just once – in January 2006. This was more than a year before Gen. David Petraeus took command and the surge began. It was also several months before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government came into office. Although Mr. Obama frequently criticizes the Iraqi leader on the campaign trail, he has never actually met him.

Why Obama Must Go to Iraq

By PETE HEGSETH
June 5, 2008

Earlier this year, I spent five days in Iraq, walking the same streets in Baghdad where I had served two years earlier as an infantry platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division.

The visit reinforced for me not only the immense complexity of the war – so often lost in our domestic political debate – but also the importance of taking the time to visit Iraq to talk with the soldiers and Marines serving on the front lines in order to grasp the changing dynamics of a fluid battlefield.

Chad Crowe

It is for this reason that the failure of Sen. Barack Obama to travel to Iraq over the past two and a half years is worrisome, and a legitimate issue in this presidential election.

Since his election to the United States Senate in 2004, Mr. Obama has traveled to Iraq just once – in January 2006. This was more than a year before Gen. David Petraeus took command and the surge began. It was also several months before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government came into office. Although Mr. Obama frequently criticizes the Iraqi leader on the campaign trail, he has never actually met him.

Mr. Obama's conduct is strikingly different from that of Sen. John McCain, who has been to Iraq eight times since 2003 – including three times since surge forces began to arrive in Baghdad. The senior senator from Arizona has made it his mission to truly understand what is happening on the ground, in all its messy reality.

Mr. Obama has dismissed the value of such trips, suggesting they are stage-managed productions designated to obfuscate, not illuminate, the truth. This has become an all-too-common sentiment within the Democratic Party leadership, especially since the surge began to transform conditions on the ground for the better. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has denied that there is any value in visiting the troops in Iraq, and has never done so.

In fairness, there are a number of Democrats who visit Iraq frequently – namely Sens. Joe Biden, who has made eight Iraq trips, and Jack Reed, with 10 trips. Mr. Obama's absence and cynicism stands in stark contrast to their serious approach. It is especially problematic given his intention to become our next commander in chief.

As anyone who has spent time on the ground in Iraq – speaking with troops of all ranks and backgrounds – can tell you, it is hardly a mission impossible to get them out to speak bluntly and openly about the problems they face.

Indeed, Mr. McCain's own frequent and vociferous criticisms of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his warnings, as early as 2003, that the Bush administration was pursuing a flawed strategy in Iraq, were directly informed by his firsthand interactions during his trips to Iraq. Troops and commanders warned him that we lacked sufficient forces to defeat al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias, and they were correct.

In turn, Mr. McCain's early advocacy for the surge and his prescient conviction that it would succeed were rooted not only in his extensive knowledge of military affairs, but in his close consultations with troops serving in the theater. They recognized that the new strategy was succeeding far before the mainstream media in the U.S. was willing to acknowledge these gains.

That Mr. Obama apparently doubts his ability to distinguish spin from reality, and to draw bad news out of subordinates, does not bode well for his possible future as our nation's chief executive. As I'm sure he will discover, if he wins the White House, these are among the most important skills for a president to possess.

Even more astonishing than Mr. Obama's absence from Iraq, however, is the fact that he has apparently never sought out a single one-on-one meeting with Gen. Petraeus. The general has made repeated trips back to Washington, but Mr. Obama has shown no interest in meeting privately with him. It's enough to make you wonder who exactly Mr. Obama listens to when it comes to Iraq?

Mr. Obama frequently decries the danger of "dogmatists" and "ideologues" in public policy, yet he himself has proven consistently uninterested in putting himself in situations where he might be confronted with the hard complexities of this war. It suggests a dangerous degree of detachment and overconfidence in his own judgment.

After all, Mr. Obama was among those in January 2007 who stridently opposed the surge and confidently predicted its failure – even going so far as to vote against funding our soldiers in the field unless the Bush administration abandoned this new approach. It is now clear that Mr. Obama's judgment on the surge was spectacularly wrong.

Yet rather than admit his mistake, Mr. Obama has instead tried to downplay or disparage the gains our troops have achieved in the past 12 months, clinging to a set of talking points that increasingly seem as divorced from reality as some in the Bush administration were at the darkest moments of the war.

Mr. Obama continues to insist that "Iraq's political leaders have made no progress in resolving the political differences at the heart of their civil war" – despite the passage of numerous pieces of benchmark legislation by the Iraqi Parliament and unequivocal evidence of grassroots reconciliation across the country.

Mr. Obama also continues to claim that America has "simply thrown U.S. troops at the problem, and it has not worked" – despite the dramatic reduction in violence in precisely those areas of Iraq where American forces have surged, and since handed over to Iraqi Security Forces.

And of course, Mr. Obama persists in his pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq, on a fixed timeline, beginning the moment he enters office – regardless of the recommendations of our commanders on the ground, regardless of conditions on the ground, and regardless, in short, of reality.

America is longing for an informed and principled debate about the future of Iraq. However, such a debate seems unlikely if the Democratic nominee for president won't take the time to truly understand the dynamics on the ground, let alone meet with commanders.

The time for talking points is over. Too much is at stake. When will Mr. Obama finally return to Iraq and see the situation for himself?

Mr. Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom, served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and returned as an embedded reporter.

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