The problem, of course, is that the essentially open-ended nature of the three “S”s (Safety, Security, Stability) entails that there will always be a perceived need to keep significant numbers of troops on the ground, and so that any policy “dictated” by anything other than a principled commitment to pack up and go as fast as possible – which is to say, very fast – is a recipe for nothing less than an indefinite occupation. Things are getting better? Better keep the troops there, so we can keep up the progress. Getting worse? Can’t pull them out now, or it might all go to shit. Reached a plateau? Good – let’s keep troop levels just where they are, lest we should awake a sleeping giant. Until Iraq looks like Albuquerque – and trust me folks, it ain’t gonna happen – pretty much all of the “refining” Obama and the commanders do is going to involve further rationalizations for keeping our boys and girls in the desert. ~John Schwenkler

John has more here.  This has always been the problem with a strategy, so called, that makes success dependent on the political stability and internal security of Iraq, since a significant part of the argument for withdrawal is that both of these things are going to be lacking for a very long time and also probably cannot be achieved while Iraqis have a large foreign military presence on their soil.  To make our withdrawal contingent on an independent, functioning Iraqi military and police force, which is effectively what stability and security in Iraq will reasonably require, is to admit that we are staying there for years and probably more than a decade, because pretty much no one believes that either force can operate successfully on its own now or in the next several years.  To make a timetable for withdrawal contingent on such developments is to give up on withdrawing most, much less all, combat troops in the next four years.  Contrary to the claims of Krauthammer, without any greater likelihood that the war will be over by 2013 under Obama than under McCain (who has also said, incredibly, that the war will be over in 2013) there is hardly any reason based in foreign policy to choose him.  In theory, if the election does not turn on Iraq, but turns instead on domestic issues conventional wisdom takes it for granted that Obama has the advantage, but it seems to me that Obama will not be able to justify the budgeting for any part of his domestic agenda so long as the war in Iraq continues.  If Obama cannot be relied on to end the war fairly quickly, his entire agenda becomes politically unworkable.  In light of his flip on the FISA legislation, why anyone would now believe that Obama would follow through on the much more dangerous and politically explosive course of withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, when many voices in the Washington establishment are clearly telling him not to do this, is honestly beyond me.     

Frankly, the new statement is a significant shift from the statements Obama made at the debate back in September when he said he couldn’t promise to have combat troops out by 2013.  Leaving residual forces and leaving the door open to a new intervention in the event of genocide were already fairly watered down positions on withdrawal, but at least the timetable (which most people, apparently except for Obama, understood was supposed to be fixed) was supposed to deliver on the promise of an expeditious withdrawal of combat troops.  It’s true that Obama left open the possibility of delay depending on contingencies, but until this week he had not defined them in terms that are essentially indistinguishable from those of the administration, right down to consulting with the “commanders on the ground.”  (Update: Apparently, he has used this phrase repeatedly in the past.  It is still the case that this basically contradicts meaningful support for withdrawal.) 

Mr. Bush used this phrase so often as a code for endless occupation that it has become laughable.  That Mr. Bush does not adjust well to changing circumstances is well known, but what Mr. Bush did with this mantra about “commanders on the ground” was to mask failed strategy behind a pose of prudence and empiricism.  He also replaced the President’s strategic judgement with reports about the tactical situtation, or rather allowed whatever he heard or said he heard from the “commanders on the ground” to serve as the excuse for why there was no coherent or feasible strategy.  If you have listened to Mr. Bush over the years (“as they stand up, we will stand down”), you will find someone who says that American forces will be in Iraq only as long as they are needed to provide for security and maintaining stability.  Obviously, in light of the permanent basing agreement Washington has been foisting on the Iraqis, this has always been misleading, but it’s not clear to me why Obama should not receive criticism for essentially echoing this position. 

When Gen. Petraeus could not, or did not, answer the obvious question from Sen. Warner about whether the war in Iraq is making America safer, he could be forgiven for not having an answer–how can he assess whether U.S. strategy in Iraq is advancing national security when the President has consistently defined success in Iraq entirely in terms of conditions in Iraq?  The refusal to think of the war in terms of the American interest, which has so confused the administration’s every move in Iraq, also afflicts Obama.  The questions ought to be the following.  Will remaining in Iraq beyond the 16-month timeline advance the national interest?  If so, what are the gains we can expect?  Are the expected gains worth the continued strain on our military?  It seems to me the answers are: no, none and no.  The proper pro-withdrawal argument has always been that remaining in Iraq any longer will be an unnecessary and unjustifiable drain on our resources and an abuse of our military, and that it serves no American interest.  Unless Obama can persuasively argue otherwise, tying our withdrawal to conditions in Iraq is all but identical to the administration’s line. 

P.S.  Obviously, the idea of delaying withdrawal on account of the safety of the soldiers, as Obama does in his latest statement, is rather bizarre.  If their safety is one of the main issues, withdrawing them from a war zone as quickly as possible would make the most sense.  In practice, however, their safety takes second place to pursuing the chimerical goal of Iraqi stability, as it always has.

Update: Crowley’s article on Obama’s Iraq policy makes another important point that should not be forgotten:

A recent Rasmussen poll found that 65 percent of Americans want to see the United States out of Iraq within a year. At least that many people would likely expect Obama to follow through on his 16-month pledge. Failure to do so could be a political disaster.

Meanwhile, my pessimistic skepticism of Obama’s antiwar position seems to be more justified all the time.

Second Update: Josh Marshall writes:

Reporters who can’t grasp what Obama is saying seem simply to have been permanently befuddled by George W. Bush’s game-playing over delegating policy to commanders.

But that is effectively what Obama is also doing.  If the “commanders on the ground” say that American forces cannot be withdrawn safely and without undermining Iraqi stability, and Obama has made withdrawal contingent on these things, Obama will allow his policy to be “constrained” by what the “commanders on the ground” tell him.  It is almost exactly the same deference to military officers that Mr. Bush has practiced.  As Crowley notes:

Obama has also said repeatedly that he would consult with “commanders on the ground” to set his strategy. Right now, that doesn’t seem entirely consistent with his withdrawal plan. “If, indeed, a President Obama were to listen to his ground commanders, right now as the situation stands, without dramatic change, they would not be recommending withdrawal,” the veteran Time Iraq correspondent Michael Ware explained on CNN last month, echoing a common view. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen told reporters last month that a precipitous withdrawal “would concern me greatly.” (Mullen’s two-year term doesn’t expire until August 2009.)