By the time you read this, Senator Obama will already be in the Middle East, to fulfill the requirement of making the trip. He has been roundly castigated for having articulated a specific timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, but oddly the greater criticism has been less that his military strategy is wrong-headed than that he had formulated his plan without having been there in several years. It is useful to separate the two issues.
There are few ways to become familiar with the intricacies of complex national security problems, and they all include detailed study and longstanding immersion, not superficial exposure. In this regard, it is interesting to note that accompanying Obama on this trip is Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), an Army veteran who has made more than ten trips to the region and is as conversant with the issues as anyone in the Congress, and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), also a veteran who has visited Iraq multiple times. Observers who think outside the confines of standard politics and have an interesting sense of humor like to speculate about a bi-partisan ticket, with Hagel as Obama's running mate. It's possible, of course, but unlikely, although Hegel as a cabinet member does make quite a bit of sense.
Obama may meet with a number of dignitaries, including King Abdullah of Jordan, and one can predict with some confidence that he will also visit with al-Maliki in Baghdad and Karzai in Kabul. Experience says that these are unlikely to be meetings of any substance, but they may be first-rate reporting opportunities. As when Senator McCain visited the region, there are liable to be videos of Senator Obama suitably outfitted in a flak vest or conversing with General Petraeus and young soldiers. He will meet with American military officials in Iraq and Afghanistan at their state-of-the-art headquarters, and he and his staff will receive the most stunning briefings American technological capability can provide. Because both Obama and his entourage are already aware of the information these briefings contain, the sessions will be unenlightening.
Obama has long asserted that he will withdraw American forces from Iraq on a regular and published schedule, and just as Obama arrived in the Middle East, President Bush agreed with the notion that an open-ended troop commitment in Iraq is politically untenable. The administration's justification for embracing the withdrawal is that General Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy has been remarkably successful, that American casualties are down, that the Iraqi army is improving dramatically. All these things are true, of course, and the Iraqi forces are even making an effort to disarm some of the militias, something that we should have done five years ago.
But the public articulation of strategic plans in advance is rarely advisable, the result of political calculation rather than military necessity. Indeed, while the military operates almost exclusively on the basis of phased operations with distinct time horizons, publicizing them is a dangerous violation of the principles of war. Still, even if it makes little military sense, if the government of Iraq and the American public want a publicized withdrawal, who's to argue?
The most interesting subject is where all this leaves Senator McCain. Long an advocate of persistence in Iraq, he seems curiously out-of-synch with the veneer of Obama's bipartisanship and President Bush's new agreement with the chorus of withdrawal advocates, and it won't help McCain's campaign if it is perceived that he is less attuned to the realities of world politics than even George W. Bush.