Is President Obama Painting Himself Into A Corner By Setting Iraq Deadline?

President Barack Obama

During his address to Congress last night, President Barack Obama focused on the state of the economy, bringing a young and energetic voice to an otherwise grim situation. While he came off stern and concerned, the president offered uplifting statements as well, saying, "We will rebuild," and arguing the potential success of the $787 billion stimulus package, which has gone from a bill to a reality in recent weeks.

Any overarching presidential speech of this decade would be remiss if it didn't include a plan for Iraq, Afghanistan and our troops. Beyond the overwhelming youth involvement and enthusiasm, there are a few things that stuck out as major promises in President Obama's campaign, like the planned 16-month troop pullout from Iraq. Democrats and young people across the nation applauded Obama for his plan, which was in strict opposition to that of former President Bush and, of course, opponent John McCain.

So when Obama gave the time frame of 19 months last night in his speech, there were a few furrowed brows. While the campaign promised 16 months, apparently the Pentagon and military officials argued for 23 months — and so, through a "meeting of the minds," as Obama called it, they arrived at a compromise of 19 months. Compromise? In Washington? Fresh. And certainly a departure from the more ... didactic and unilateral decision-making of our 43rd president. I think we can forgive the three-month difference in place of the bigger promise kept, which was to bring compromise, and a president who listens to his entire Cabinet before making a fair and balanced decision.

That said, back when I was writing my Wesleyan University thesis on exit strategies, one of my findings was that a timetable can often result in negative consequences. An exit strategy is always an integral part of presidential war decision-making, and the lack of an exit strategy was certainly one of the main criticisms of Bush's invasion of Iraq. However, there is a serious difference between an exit "strategy" and an exit "timetable." In a conflict like the one in Iraq, in which there are opposing insurgencies and factions, telling your enemy when you're planning on leaving can be extremely detrimental to the success of the operation. That's just plain common sense. However, in a war like the one in Iraq, where the American public's anger has been fueled since the beginning, a president must give his or her people an expected withdrawal — in fact, the people demand it.

The other issue to address is the fact that withdrawal deadlines are seldom kept and often extended. If President Obama plans to keep his public approval rate high, he cannot afford to break promises. A strict deadline of "19 months" is a dangerous promise to make, as conflicts and wars seldom go according to plan. Given the public's trust in Obama, I'm sure there will be an inherent understanding and approval if he does, in fact, have to later extend the deadline. However, historically, exit deadlines and timetables have been detrimental either to the conflict or to public opinion in the long term, even if beneficial in the short term.

So, as we, the public, demand that President Obama delivers us out of the war in Iraq, we must also look at history and allow him to change his withdrawal plan a few times along the way. After all, nothing is so unstable and unpredictable as a war.