Obama to Couric: You know, I'm not sure how many troops I'll keep in Iraq

Consider this a complement to the “flexibility” word games I wrote about earlier. We know he’s shooting for 16 months; we also know he (properly) reserves the prerogative of strategic decisions to himself as president. Beyond that, we don’t know jack:

Couric: You talk about a residual force remaining in Iraq, but you’ve been hesitant to really give a number … to people. You haven’t been specific, though some of your advisors have said it could be tens of thousands of troops. Why can’t you be more specific as to what you envision?

Obama: Now, keep in mind that when I talk about timetables, people say that’s too specific, with respect to residual force, maybe not specific enough. I think this is an example of a tactical issue. How do you execute a mission that requires commanders on the ground to make that decision? My job as commander-in-chief would be to indicate to them here’s our goal, here are the missions that we need to carry out. Now, you tell me what it is that we need in terms of boots on the ground, in terms of equipment, in terms of other capabilities that are gonna be required. The overarching strategy is not something that I can deflect to the general. That’s something that I have to make a decision at of, if I am president of the United States.

Couric: Having said that, if General Petraeus or the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mullen, say to you, “Hey, President Obama …”

Obama: Right.

Couric: …if that comes to pass, “you cannot take out the final complement of combat troops. You need them in the theater,” you would say?

Obama: I will always listen to the commanders on the ground. And I will make an assessment based on the facts at that time.

If he considers troop levels to be a tactical rather than a strategic issue and therefore something to be guided by the advice of his generals rather than dictated from the top down as C-in-C, how is he able to set even an informal timetable? Petraeus, his would-be Centcom commander, is already telling him that a timetable unmoored to conditions is a bad idea. Is that a strategic or tactical judgment? Does it matter, since he’d have the final say anyway? He’s drawing an artificial distinction here in order to avoid having to commit to an estimate of the number of troops he hopes/plans to draw down. Which is fine by me, since it leaves him room to inch away from a total withdrawal later on, but presumably not so fine by the left for the same reason. Imagine, for instance, he tells Odierno that manpower is desperately needed in Afghanistan and therefore he wants to try to free up 50,000 troops by accelerating the handover of provincial security to Iraqi forces. No dice, says Odierno; we can spare 20,000, but those other 30,000 will be needed as back-up for awhile since the Iraqis aren’t fully prepared yet for their lead role. 50,000 versus 20,000 is a big deal, sufficiently so to matter to voters, I’d think. We have no sense from his answer what he’d do.

Elsewhere in the interview, he reiterates his opposition to the surge:

Couric: But yet you’re saying … given what you know now, you still wouldn’t support [the surge] … so I’m just trying to understand this.

Obama: Because … it’s pretty straightforward. By us putting $10 billion to $12 billion a month, $200 billion, that’s money that could have gone into Afghanistan. Those additional troops could have gone into Afghanistan. That money also could have been used to shore up a declining economic situation in the United States. That money could have been applied to having a serious energy security plan so that we were reducing our demand on oil, which is helping to fund the insurgents in many countries. So those are all factors that would be taken into consideration in my decision — to deal with a specific tactic or strategy inside of Iraq.

Lots of “factors,” near-total flexibility — again, fine by me, not so fine for the left. Also, notwithstanding the political reality of both sides refusing to admit error in their Iraq judgments, I’m surprised that he’s as reluctant as he is to change his position on the surge in hindsight given (a) how much improvement there’s been, (b) what the likely consequences would have been if it hadn’t worked, and (c) the fact that he can still tout his initial judgment on the war to voters as evidence that he’s savvier than McCain. A “serious energy security plan” would be wonderful, but the alternate-history timeline in this scenario includes possible Srebrenicas. When Jake Tapper says Obama hasn’t learned anything, he isn’t kidding.