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Then-senator Barack Obama talking to reporters about then-president Bush's address to the nation on Iraq, in January 2007. (AP file)

Tough questions for Obama -- from Obama

ASK THIS | December 02, 2009

The last time a president sent more troops to war while claiming his commitment wasn't open-ended, a young senator from Illinois responded with the proper skepticism and excellent questions.

By Dan Froomkin

Just under three years ago, when another presidential administration was insisting that its military commitment in a faraway land was not open-ended -- but was refusing to explain what that really meant -- a young senator from Illinois asked the secretary of state some very good questions.

What if things don't go according to plan? What if the occupied country's government remains a shambles? What exactly are the benchmarks for success? And what are the consequences if they are not met? Is the United States really willing to walk away?

Those were the questions then-senator Barack Obama had for then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice about President Bush's decision to send 20,000 more troops into Iraq.

Rice didn't have any good answers. Now it's Obama's turn.

As I wrote on Tuesday afternoon for the Huffington Post, just before his speech, for President Obama to really deliver on his promise of an endgame, he had to do more than just describe an unsupported best-case scenario.

What Obama needed to announce was not just a timeframe for troop withdrawals to begin, but a detailed timeline all the way to complete pullout. He needed to put forth unambiguous benchmarks by which to measure success. And most importantly, he needed to explain precisely what happens if the benchmarks aren't met - i.e. if things don't go according to plan. Because they won't.

Instead, after announcing the deployment of 30,000 additional troops, Obama said that he will "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011." He provided no sense of how quickly that would take place, or when the withdrawal would be complete, saying that would depend on "conditions on the ground."

A drawdown would be possible, he said, because 19 months from now the improved security climate and training of Afghan forces resulting from his temporary escalation would give rise to an Afghan government ready to start taking responsibility for its own country.

But what if everything doesn't turn out exactly the way he's hoping? Is Obama really willing to walk away?

Who knows?

Here's the back-and-forth between Obama and Rice at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in January 2007.

Obama: "You continually say that we've got assurances from the [government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki] that it is going to be different this time. What I want to know is, number one, what are the specific benchmarks and assurances that have been received? Where are these written? How can we examine them?

"Number two, why would we not want to explicitly condition, in whatever supplementals or appropriations or whatever it is that you are doing, that these benchmarks be met, so that the American people and legislators who are voting on them have some understanding of what it is that we expect, and it's not a backroom conversation between the president and Maliki?

"Number three, what are the consequences if these benchmarks are not met? What leverage do we have that would provide us some assurance that six months from now, you will not be sitting before us again saying, 'Well, it didn't work; [radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-] Sadr's militia has not been disarmed; we have not seen sufficient cooperation with respect to distribution of oil resources; we are still seeing political interference; we have lost an additional hundred or 200 or 300 or 400 American lives; we have spent an additional hundred billion dollars; but we still can't afford to lose, and so we're going to have to proceed in the same fashion, and maybe we'll have to send more troops in'? What leverage do we have six months from now?"

Rice: "Senator, the leverage is that we're not going to stay married to a plan that's not working in Baghdad if the Iraqis are not living up to their part of the obligation, because it won't work. Unless they're prepared to make the tough political decisions -- and frankly, we know why the sectarian violence didn't come down that's -- all had hoped would. It didn't come down because there weren't enough forces when these areas were cleared to actually hold them, because there were not enough reliable Iraqi forces, and we know that there was too much political interference in what was going on.

"That's been changed in this plan, both by the augmentation of the forces with our own forces and by bringing forces in from other parts of Iraq.

"So we're not going to stay married to a plan that isn't working because the Iraqis aren't living up to their end of the bargain."

Obama: "Madame Secretary, because I think the chairman appropriately is trying to keep our time restricted, I want to just follow up on this and be very clear. Are you telling me that if in six months or whatever time frame you are suggesting that in fact the Maliki government has not performed these benchmarks -- which, by the way, remain not sufficiently explicit, I think, for a lot of us to make decisions on, but let's assume that that surfaces over the next several weeks that this is being debated -- that at that point, you are going to suggest to the Maliki government that we are going to start phasing down our troop levels in Iraq?"

Rice: "Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate. But I will tell you this, the benchmark that I'm looking at -- the oil law is important, the political process is extraordinary important -- that the most important thing that the Iraqi government has to do right now is to reestablish the confidence of its population that it's going to be even-handed in defending it. That's what we need to see over the next two or three months, and I think that over the next several months they're going to have to show that."

Obama: "Or else what? Mr. Chairman -"

Rice: "Or this plan -- or this plan is not -- this plan is not going to work."

Obama: "The question is not whether the plan is going to work or not. The question is: What are the consequences if the Iraqi government -- I'm out of time, but I have to ask this question.

"Are there any circumstances that the president or you are willing to share in which we would say to the Iraqis we are no longer maintaining combat troops, American combat troops in Iraq? Are there any circumstances that you can articulate in which we would say to the Maliki government that enough is enough, and we are no longer committing our troops?"

Rice: "I'm not going to speculate, but I do tell you that the president made very clear that of course there are circumstances. That's what it means when he says our patience is not limited. But I do think we need to recognize that the consequences for the Iraqis are also quite dire, and they are in a process in which their people are going to hold them accountable as well."

Obama clearly wasn't satisfied with the answers he got then; but now he's the one unable or unwilling to answer the tough questions.

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