Obama: We Have to Apply “Measured, But Increased Pressure” on the Iraqis

April 8, 2008 5:59 p.m.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) finally got his turn during today’s Senate foreign relations committtee hearing and used it to question Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus on what “success” would be in Iraq, focusing on the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian influence as key benchmarks.

After questions about the status quo in Iraq of these two areas, Obama proceeded to ask Crocker and Petraeus whether that status quo could be called success if maintained without such a high level of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Here’s video of Obama’s questions:

His point, he said, was that the “definition of success is so high,” such as wiping out AQI and eliminating any undue Iranian influence, then success would be unattainable. But that if the criteria for success was a “messy, sloppy status quo,” not dissimilar to the current state of affairs, though without U.S. troops holding the country together, then that was attainable.

Such a state of affairs, Obama said, could be achieved with “measured, but increased pressure” on the Iraqis via troop withdrawals (he was keen to point out that “nobody is asking for a precipitous withdrawal”) and a “diplomatic surge” in the region.

Here’s video of Obama’s conclusion:

“Our resources are finite,” he said, and “when you have finite resources, you have to define goals tightly and modestly.”

Crocker generally agreed with Obama’s definition of success in Iraq (“this is hard and this is complicated”), though he did not stipulate to Obama’s somewhat more modest characterization of what success would look like.

Text of Obama’s comments below.

OBAMA: I want to thank both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker for their dedication and sacrifice. And obviously our troops are bearing the largest burden for this enterprise. I think both of you take those sacrifices very seriously. And we appreciate the sacrifices that you, yourselves are making.

I want to just start off with a couple of quick questions, because in the parade of horribles that I think both of you have outlined should we leave too quickly at the center is Al Qaida in Iraq and Iran. So I want to just focus on those two things for a moment.

With respect to Al Qaida in Iraq, it’s already been noted they were not there before we went in, but they certainly were there last year and they continue to have a presence there now.

Should we be successful in Mosul, should you continue, General, with the effective operations that you’ve been engaged in, assuming that in that narrow military effort we are successful, do we anticipate that there ever comes a time where Al Qaida in Iraq could not reconstitute itself?

PETRAEUS: Well, I think the question, Senator, is whether Iraqi security forces over time, with much less help, could deal with their efforts to reconstitute. I think it’s…

OBAMA: That’s my point.

PETRAEUS: I think it’s a given that Al Qaida-Iraq will try to reconstitute just as any movement of that type does try to reconstitute. And the question is whether…

OBAMA: I don’t mean — don’t mean to interrupt you, but I just want to sharpen the question so that — because I think you’re getting right at my point here.

I mean, if one of our criteria for success is ensuring that Al Qaida does not have a base of operations in Iraq, I just want to harden a little bit the metrics by which we’re measuring that.

At what point do we say they cannot reconstitute themselves or are we saying that they’re not going to be particularly effective and the Iraqis, themselves, will be able to handle the situation?

PETRAEUS: I think it’s really the latter, Senator, that, again, if you can keep chipping away at them, chipping away at their leadership, chipping away at the resources, that comprehensive approach that I mentioned, that, over time — and we are reaching that in some other areas already.

As I mentioned, we are drawing down very substantially in Anbar province, a place that I think few people would have thought would be the situation we’re in at this point now, say, 18 months ago. And, again, that’s what we want to try to achieve in all of the different areas in which Al Qaida has a presence.

OBAMA: OK. I just want to be clear if I’m understanding. We don’t anticipate that there’s never going to be some individual or group of individuals in Iraq that might have sympathies toward Al Qaida. Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they’re not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq. Is that accurate?

PETRAEUS: That is exactly right.

OBAMA: OK. And it’s also fair to say that, in terms of our success dealing with Al Qaida, that the Sunni Awakening has been very important, as you’ve testified. The Sons of Iraq and other tribal groups have allied themselves with us.

There have been talks about integrating them into the central government. However, it’s been somewhat slow, somewhat frustrating. And my understanding, at least, is, although there’s been a promise of 20 to 30 percent of them being integrated into the Iraqi security forces, that has not yet been achieved; on the other hand, the Maliki government was very quick to say, “We’re going to take another 10,000 Shias into the Iraqi security forces.”

And I’m wondering, does that undermine confidence on the part of the Sunni tribal leaders, that they are actually going to be treated fairly and they will be able to incorporate some of these young men of military age into the Iraqi security forces?

PETRAEUS: That is ongoing, Senator. As I mentioned, there’s well over 20,000 who have already been integrated into either Iraqi security forces or other government positions. It doesn’t just have to be the ISF. It can be other positions.

And there are thousands of others who are working their way through a process, with the Iraqi National Committee for Reconciliation, in the Ministry of Interior and so forth.

It hasn’t been easy. Because, in the beginning, certainly, there was understandable suspicion about groups that were predominantly Sunni Arab, although about 20 percent are actually Shia as well.

But the process is moving. It’s not been easy, but it is actually ongoing. And it is generally, now, a relatively routine process, although it takes lots of nudging.

OBAMA: OK, let me shift to Iran.

Just as — and, Ambassador Crocker, if you want to address this, you can. Just as it’s fair to say that we’re not going to completely eliminate all traces of Al Qaida in Iraq, but we want to create a manageable situation, it’s also true to say that we’re not going to eliminate all influence of Iran in Iraq, correct?

That’s not our goal. That can’t be our definition of success, that Iran has no influence in Iraq.

So can you define more sharply what you think would be a legitimate or fair set of circumstances in the relationship between Iran and Iraq, that would make us feel comfortable drawing down our troops?

CROCKER: Senator, as I said in my statement, we have no problem with a good, constructive relationship between Iran and Iraq. The problem is with the Iranian strategy of backing extremist militia groups and sending in weapons and munitions that are used against Iraqis and against our own forces.

OBAMA: Do we feel confident that the Iraqi government is directing these — this aid to these special groups?
Do we feel confident about that, or do we think that they’re just tacitly tolerating it? Do you have some sense of that?

CROCKER: There’s no question in our minds that the Iranian government, and in particular the Quds Force, is — this is a conscious, carefully worked-out policy.

OBAMA: If that’s the case, can you respond a little more fully to Senator Boxer’s point? If, in fact, it is known — and I’m assuming you’ve shared that information with the Maliki government — that Iran’s government has assisted in arming special groups that are doing harm to Iraqi security forces and undermining the Iraqi government, why is it that they’re being welcomed the way they were?

CROCKER: Well, we don’t need to, again, tell the prime minister that. He knows it.


CROCKER: And is trying to take some steps to tighten up significantly on the border.

In terms of the Ahmadinejad visit, you know, Iran and Iraq are neighbors. A visit like that should be in the category of a normal relationship.


CROCKER: I think what we have seen since then, in terms of this very clear spotlight focused on a malign Iranian influence, puts that visit into a very different perspective for most Iraqis, including the Iraqi Shia.

OBAMA: OK. Because — Mr. Chairman, I know that I am out of time, so let me just, if I could have the indulgence of the committee for one minute?

BIDEN: Everybody else has.


OBAMA: I just want to close with a couple of key points.

Number one, we all have the greatest interest in seeing a successful resolution to Iraq — all of us do. And that, I think, has to be stated clearly in the record.

I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder, that the two problems that you’ve pointed out — Al Qaida in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region — are a direct result of that original decision.

OBAMA: That’s not a decision you gentlemen made. I won’t lay it at your feet. You are cleaning up the mess afterwards. But I think it is important as we debate this forward.

I also think that the surge has reduced violence and provided breathing room, but that breathing room has not been taken the way we would all like it to be taken. And I think what happened in Basra is an example of Shia versus Shia jockeying for power that underscores how complicated the political situation is there and how we still have to continue to work vigorously to resolve it.

I believe that we are more likely to resolve it, in your own words, Ambassador, if we are applying increased pressure in a measured way. I think that increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind — and this is where we disagree — includes a timetable for withdrawal.

Nobody’s asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure; and a diplomatic surge that includes Iran. Because if Maliki can tolerate as normal neighbor-to-neighbor relations in Iran, then we should be talking to them as well. I do not believe we’re going to be able to stabilize the position without them.

Just last point I will make. Our resources are finite. And this has been made — this is a point that just was made by Senator Voinovich, it’s been made by Senator Biden, Senator Lugar, Senator Hagel. There’s a bipartisan consensus that we have finite resources. Our military is overstretched, and the Pentagon has acknowledged it.

The amount of money that we are spending is hemorrhaging our budget, and Al Qaida in Afghanistan I think is feeling a lot more secure as long as we’re focused in Iraq and not on Afghanistan.

When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goals tightly and modestly.

And so my final — and I’ll even pose this as a question and I won’t — you don’t necessarily have to answer it — maybe it’s a rhetorical question — if we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success?

It’s obviously not perfect. There’s still violence, there’s still some traces of Al Qaida, Iran has influence more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough and we’d have to devote even more resources to it?

CROCKER: Senator, I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.

BIDEN: That wasn’t the question.

OBAMA: No, no, that wasn’t the question. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint. That’s what all of us have been trying to get to.

And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don’t like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there’s still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven’t been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

CROCKER: And that’s because, Senator, is a — I mean, I don’t like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard and this is complicated.

I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there but where they and we would have a fair certitude that, again, they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then, clearly, our profile, our presence diminishes markedly.

But that’s not where we are now.

OBAMA: Thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Chairman.

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