Prudence as Hypocrisy

When did changing one’s policy prescriptions over time as circumstances changed become hypocrisy? That’s only prudent and it seems to me that prudence is a quality we’d want in our leaders. George Packer suggests in the New Yorker that Sen. Obama’s prescriptions on Iraq should change as the circumstances there change:

Obama, whatever the idealistic yearnings of his admirers, has turned out to be a cold-eyed, shrewd politician. The same pragmatism that prompted him last month to forgo public financing of his campaign will surely lead him, if he becomes President, to recalibrate his stance on Iraq. He doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, reënergize the Sunni insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia’s recent losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state of collapse. The question is whether Obama will publicly change course before November. So far, he has offered nothing more concrete than this: “We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.”

I would hope that a resurgence of foreign Islamist fighters into Iraq would be unlikely given that they’re in rather bad odor among the native Iraqi Sunnis these days but I think that concerns about a real, hot civil war whose casualties would dwarf anything we’ve seen to date in Iraq is a genuine concern. At least, it’s my concern.

Mr. Packer’s article is titled “Obama’s Iraq Problem”, a misnomer. Sen. Obama doesn’t have an Iraq problem, he has a problem with some portions of his base for whom the intractability of the problems in Iraq is an article of faith and for whom the only acceptable strategy is complete withdrawal, an outcome which Sen. Obama has never promised (look carefully at the words “combat brigades” in his official statements on the subject). Contrariwise, I think the approach mentioned by Mr. Packer sounds promising:

Last month, the Center for a New American Security, which has become something like Obama’s foreign-policy think tank, released a report that argued against a timetable for withdrawal, regardless of the state of the war, and in favor of “conditional engagement,” declaring, “Under this strategy, the United States would not withdraw its forces based on a firm unilateral schedule. Rather, the time horizon for redeployment would be negotiated with the Iraqi government and nested within a more assertive approach to regional diplomacy. The United States would make it clear that Iraq and America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi government and build its security and governance capacity over the long term, but only so long as Iraqis continue to make meaningful political progress.” It’s impossible to know if this persuasive document mirrors Obama’s current thinking, but here’s a clue: it was co-written by one of his Iraq advisers, Colin Kahl.

A “conditional engagement” policy is a much better fit for the present situation in Iraq. It would keep the heat on Iraqi politicians, whose willingness to reach compromise on issues like oil revenues, provincial elections, de-Baathification, and power sharing still lags well behind the government’s recent military successes. It would allow for a phased withdrawal of most troops, depending on political progress and on the performance of the Iraqi Army. This, in turn, would ease the pressure on the American military and answer the rightful disenchantment in American public opinion. There will be no such thing as victory in Iraq, but the next President, if he remains nimble, may be able to keep the damage under control.

That would be victory enough for me.

3 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t know Dave, when you change your positions on the basis of audience (Democrats versus the General Electorate), its not hypocrisy, its deceptiveness. I’m not a Democrat, so he doesn’t owe me anything, but to gain my vote he needs to make me comfortable with his decisionmaking (relative to McCain).

    BTW/ I was at Obama’s formal announcement where he declared that NO American lives were worth another country’s civil war. I don’t see how any intervening events could change that judgment other than winning the primaries.

  • Interesting, Dave. I’d add that Obama’s initial rhetorical time frame of 18 months now seems to be that of “my first term.” From the standpoint of sound leadership Obama would demonstrate a degree of excellence if he shifted his “strategy” as the situation in Iraq demanded, even if that meant “hypocrisy” for much of his base. From a political standpoint (assuming he wins the Presidency) Obama’s “out Iraq” may become analogous to another poor fella’s “read my lips.”

  • “When did changing one’s policy prescriptions over time as circumstances changed become hypocrisy?”

    Simple, Dave…when it’s done for sheer political expediency or to pander in an effort to gain political power (as opposed to responding to changes in circumstances). There’s a word for that, but it ain’t ‘leadership’.

    And such changes, by the way should be dictated by one’s core political principles, rather than simply changing suport for a mechanism.

    For instance, if the principle involved is upholding law and order and reducing crime and one’s chosen mechanism is draconian gun control, the facts might lead a rational person to change their opinion about that mechanism, in which case, if you’re a politician, clear public statements and policy votes to back them up are in order.

    On the other hand, if you’re merely a politician seeking votes with little or no principles, you make ambiguous statements to different groups depending on what your pollsters tell you and dance on the cracks with `present’ or no show votes and finesse the contradictions.

    George W. Bush’s belated backing of the troop surge in Iraq is an example of the former.

    Barack Hussein Obama’s political career to date is pretty much an example of the latter.

    All Best,

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