Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 18, 2009
By: Hilzoy


Steve already noted the NYT report that Obama will meet with military commanders on his first day in office. On This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked David Axelrod whether, in this meeting, Obama would ask those officers to come up with a plan to withdraw US combat forces in Iraq within sixteen months. Axelrod said, simply: "Yes."

This should not be surprising in view of the fact that Obama has consistently promised to do exactly this. However, it's worth recalling the flap that occurred last July when Obama said: "When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

To my ear, this just sounded as though Obama was saying: my goal is to withdraw our troops as quickly as possible. But of course I will consult with the commanders on the ground about exactly how this should happen. Which is to say: no big deal. But lots of people thought it meant that Obama was changing his position on Iraq in some fundamental way. My favorite moment from the whole brouhaha came on ABC's This Week (July 6, transcript via Lexis/Nexis):

"GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mark Halperin, I think it was on Thursday or Friday, you said that this apparent shift by Barack Obama, he denies it was one, is one of the biggest things to happen in the campaign.


Imagine: this utter non-story, which existed only in the minds of people like Mark Halperin, was one of the biggest things to have happened in the campaign -- a campaign which had included, for instance, Obama's speech on race, his fantastic organization, his string of caucus victories, and the fact that an African-American candidate had won a whole lot of states with very small black populations.

And it wasn't just Halperin: on that show alone, Ted Koppel claimed that Obama had "come to realize" that we have to keep troops in Iraq because it produces so much oil, and that we were "still going to have 80,000 to 100,000 troops in there three to five years from now." Michelle Cottle of TNR said:

"I think there's no question, I don't think any of the candidates that we were looking at, you know, Hillary or Obama or McCain ever intended to pull them all out to the degree that we were talking about. Now, it's general election time, he has to shift his emphasis."

And that was just one show.

Every single person on it agreed, first, that Obama was genuinely shifting his position on Iraq; second, that his protestations to the contrary were just meant to soothe his base; third, that he had never meant what he said in the first place, and fourth, that the reason for this was that it was just so obvious that we couldn't possibly withdraw all our combat troops from Iraq.

I mean: all the serious people said so. So how could Obama disagree?

We badly, badly need a new group of commentators on TV, or at least a ban on appearances by Mark Halperin and anyone else who just makes stuff up and then proclaims it the most significant development in the campaign to date.

Hilzoy 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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from your mouth to god's ears

Posted by: Pudentilla on January 18, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

the poetry of d.h.rumsfeld

to adapt a phrase from an earlier little ditty

"It is unknowable how long the withdrawl will last. It could be decided on in six days, the logistics planned out in six weeks. I doubt we'll have troop in theatre after six months."

Posted by: tofubo on January 18, 2009 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Is there a pundit scoreboard somewhere so we could assess the pundits somehow?

They're all wrong sometimes and some are wrong all the time (calling Bill Kristol...), but it would be nice to know who make the most successful predictions. 538.com comes to mind as an outfit that has produced consistent, high quality political commentary this cycle.

Posted by: CFG in IL on January 18, 2009 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

I say let the pundits keep punditizing. They have been so wrong for so long that they have lost all credibility. I don't even bother to watch them anymore. Sure does free up a lot of time.

Posted by: Sheridan on January 18, 2009 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Nice post Hilzoy.

[Insert terrorist fist-bump here.]

Posted by: koreyel on January 18, 2009 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe the point of the MSM diagnosing a pre-election shift towards their own "serious, sensible and strong" viewpoint on Iraq by the Obama campaign was to make it easier for them to report on a post-election 'left-wing shift' in the Obama Administration's attitude to withdrawl from Iraq.

Ergo - "After appearing to moderate his radicalism when the success of The Surge removed Iraq as an electoral issue, President Obama appears to have succumbed to pressure from left-wing, anti-war pressure groups and renaged on his campaign promise to listen to the commanders on the ground. We're hearing he will instead press the JCOS to begin planning for the withdrawal of American troops from their vital role as a buffer between Iraq's armed actions, thus putting in jeopardy the fragile peace brokered by the Bush Administration."

Or something like that.

Posted by: Tony J on January 18, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone is in someone's pocket. Every person on the teevee owes someone else, and plays nice.

The tune was "get Obama" - and they tried hard and long.
Tom Brokaw's "performance" in the second debate was beyond him being a tool to complete brown-nosing.

The full-court press when Obama indicated he would listen to the commanders was part of the effort to paint Obama as inexperienced in foreign and military matters. Of course, McCain/Palin turned out to be Team Clueless, and the US had had enough of that, eight years' worth.

Posted by: SteinL on January 18, 2009 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Week in-and-week-out for nearly a third of a century, George Will has spewed forth every Sunday morning on national TV like clockwork. Even after being busted in 1980 for having lauded Ronald Reagan in his first debate with Jimmy Carter ("a thoroughbred performance"), while conveniently neglecting to mention he helped the Gipper prepare for that debate. He should have been fired, of course, and would have been by a reputable news organization. But corporations don't fire their shills for toeing the company line, and that was that. Then came Cokie...

Posted by: JL on January 18, 2009 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

CFG mentions Nate Silver at 538.com as a potential commentator; at the least, maybe Nate could keep the scorecard also mentioned above. After all, he's a stats guy!

Posted by: Linkmeister on January 18, 2009 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Try turning off your TV. It hits 'em right where it counts, the ratings. I hardly watch television and I don't think I'm missing much.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 18, 2009 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Look, these people are conditioned to a kabuki model in which what a politician says bears a very weird relationship to what he really thinks and intends -- although it's also true that they themselves bear much of the blame for this situation.

The way that Obama won this election was a complete break with this model: he won by being sincere. It is a great strength of his. They're not used to it yet.

Posted by: larry birnbaum on January 18, 2009 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK


Forgive me if I'm a little grumpy today. All night long I dreamt about being chased by a priori and posteriori appositions (OK, I know, but that's what they called themselves).

Anyway, I think too many TV pundits make politically friendly assumptions, whether sincere or otherwise, because when they are invited to shows, it is expected they will defend a predefined position - usually pro-Republican or pro-Democrat. In this case, the assumption is that we can't leave Iraq, so Obama must eventually backtrack. Once you're convinced of that, it is easy to interpret his statement as these pundits did. Of course, the downside is you get a lot of shallow analysis when your job is simply to defend one party's worldview.

Posted by: Danp on January 18, 2009 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

It's a well-considered (and, in the past, successful) right-wing strategy to make sure that no one can change the terms of the policy debate. But the important thing to note is that, in the end, it's just talk. I think (and I hope) that we're going to see some change-- whether the right-wing talking heads like it or not.

Posted by: MattF on January 18, 2009 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know. We are all used to lying bullshit all the time coming from the politicos so if we can easily (and you can do this EASILY) parse something to mean something else we will. Obama hopefully knows this because it has happened a couple times by now. With his stances on stuff like FISA and his reliance on torture enablers and anti-gay bigots until we raised a massive storm against it, he is inclined to betray progressives.

I don't think it's unreasonable to view his statements with some caution.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 18, 2009 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

"We badly, badly need a new group of commentators on TV, or at least a ban on appearances by Mark Halperin and anyone else who just makes stuff up and then proclaims it the most significant development in the campaign to date."

Absolutey, unequivocally correct.

That said, in this case Halperin and the rest are almost certainly right, albeit for the wrong reasons. Obama may not have shifted his position on the issue, but then he didn't have to. He left himself plenty of wiggle room. (The man is an attorney afterall.)

What does "the withdrawl of US combat forces from Iraq" actually mean. If you look up the definition of "combat force" you find that a "tactical combat force" is a combat unit, with appropriate combat support and combat service support assets, that is assigned the mission of defeating Level III threats. "Level III threats" are defined as those made up of conventional forces. I think it is fairly obvious that the US is not currently threatened with conventional forces in Iraq.

Obama could conceivably remove all "combat forces" from the country and still leave tens of thousands of military personnel (and a lot of weaponry) behind. Of course, this would be done to "preserve security" and "train the Iraqi army" and "act as a counterweight to Iran's regional ambitions" and so on. If the sixty plus years of post-WWII experienc are any guide the US military will be in Iraq, in large numbers, beyond the foreseeable future (i.e., well beyond 16 months).

Posted by: jm on January 18, 2009 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

get us the fuck out of there (Iraq): Obama promised; Obama will deliver

and just a "by the way": I vowed several months ago never to look again at Halperin on the Time Magazine web site. A little protest, this, but it might turn into something ...

Posted by: sjw on January 18, 2009 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

I was just watching C-SPAN. Barack Obama was talking about his book at B&N. I just saw part of the Q&A, but he said something which really put his consistent message in perspective. He said we must end the "anything goes" politics in Washington and it must be done by example.

He defined this type of politics as taking cheap shots, causing division. He said "we progressives" don't do too well at this type of politics.

He said when you know what you believe you can compromise to get good things done. But if you don't know what you believe, then politics becomes sport.

Somehow I think this is exactly what we are going to hear on Tuesday.

A consistent message for over four years, a message put into practice for over four years. I assume that he will remind everyone that is how he got to where he is, validating his analysis.

One thing has changed a little. Back then his daughters were into Sponge Bob.

Posted by: tomj on January 18, 2009 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Oops, forgot to be specific, the C-SPAN Q&A was from Nov. 23, 2004. Could have been yesterday, nothing has changed in his analysis or priorities from then to now.

Posted by: tomj on January 18, 2009 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

JL said: Week in-and-week-out for nearly a third of a century, George Will has spewed forth every Sunday morning on national TV like clockwork.

I don't know if Will shows evidence of functioning brain cells on TV, since I hardly ever watch the boob tube. But his op-ed column has become amazingly stupid. I spent a few months this summer and fall critiquing the WaPo op-ed page in my now-defunct blog, and it's really hard to exaggerate how bad Will was.

Between July and November, Will created Fairness Doctrine Paranoia out of whole cloth (in columns in August and September), wrote about miracle cures for what ails our public schools (staff them with Ivy League grads, hire guys who've made fortunes in business as principals, and all for the same money we're paying now),and in late September, after everyone else with an IQ above room temperature had figured out that Palin was willfully ignorant, Will was saying "Palin is as bracing as an Arctic breeze and delightfully elicits the condescension of liberals whose enthusiasm for everyday middle-class Americans cannot survive an encounter with one." And that's just a start.

Not to mention, his columns tend to wander pointlessly. Even idiots like Robert J. Samuelson at least have structure and direction to their op-eds, however stupid the content may be. Will fails even at that. It's really hard to overstate how awful he is in print.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 18, 2009 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK
"When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

After nearly eight years of YEEHAA! BOMBS AWAY!! the bobbleheads were thrown by careful, fact-based planning and cliche-free speech.

Or they're just cretins.

Posted by: The Answer WAS Orange on January 18, 2009 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of making stuff up, it's absurd how they have now decided that Obama is going to "rein in" those evil entitlement programs. The conservatards are wetting their pants over this one.

Posted by: TT on January 18, 2009 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Frankly, the major media (with TV setting the agenda) is a lost cause to anyone who wants change other than that defined by the conservative think tanks. That's a big reason why Obama created the grassroots political organization that got him elected.

Now that the organization has been made permanent as "Organizing for America" as an arm of the DNC the continued stupidity and clear bias of the media will be of less significance. Add to that the additional advantage created by the Republicans themselves as the extremist Republican leadership continues to paint the Republican Party into a corner with their blatant partisanship and refusal to act for America any time it conflicts with the advantage of the party.

Most of the American people can't stomach the Republican policies or their political methods. Getting around the media roadblock to be able to get those people to speak to and interact directly with the President is really going to change things.

I wonder how long it will take the TV pundits (in particular) to figure out their ground has moved. WaPo and the NY Times may precede them.

Posted by: Rick B on January 18, 2009 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Something else that I'd like President Obama to talk about with military commanders on that first day: once and for all capturing Osama bin Laden. The only reason I can think of that he hasn't been captured or killed yet is that the "we're gonna smoke 'em out" guy was never serious about it; bin Laden was too useful as a bogeyman for the Bush administration.

Posted by: josef on January 18, 2009 at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK

I started distrusting B.O. on this issue as soon as -- shades of Nam -- he started talking about "combat troops."

It's a line of bullshit, but one that many MSLBs (mainstream liberal blogs) apparently are still ready to swallow.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 18, 2009 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

Just turn the damn thing off. Television provides so little light that people would be more-informed if they just ignored it completely.

Posted by: Big River Bandido on January 19, 2009 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK



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