One of Washington's worst-kept secrets is that Senator Barack Obama is planning a "surprise" visit to Baghdad in the next few days the better to refine his Iraq policy. It's a great idea: Anybody hoping to be President of the United States should experience, firsthand, the impact of American policy on Iraq and Iraqis. But just how much can Obama expect to see and hear of Iraq while in Baghdad? If he lets the U.S. military or the American embassy in Baghdad plan his itinerary, the answer is: not much.
Visits by individual VIPs and congressional delegations are carefully stage-managed, and follow a predictable course. A visitor gets to spend some time in one or more U.S. military bases, is briefed by General David Petraeus and his senior commanders, then takes a helicopter ride to the Green Zone for a meal with Ambassador Ryan Crocker and a briefing by his top diplomats. Then, another chopper ride to the airport, and a flight home.
In other words, lots of photo-ops, lots of PowerPoint presentations and very little contact with Iraqi reality.
Obviously, the visiting VIPs can't shake off their military security and go roaming in the Red Zone that would be taking an absurd risk. Nor is there much point to the military's high-security walkabouts; remember John McCain's farcical visit to a Baghdad marketplace last year? In light of the security constraints, the only way to get a real sense of life outside the Green Zone is to meet with ordinary Iraqis the people outside the protected bubble, who live the consequences of U.S. policy.
Unfortunately, if VIP visitors encounter any Iraqis at all, the locals are usually handpicked to reinforce the embassy's (or military's) point of view. Visitors may also consult with Iraqi leaders who, by definition, have political agendas of their own.
Still, there are a few ways Obama can reach out to ordinary Iraqis and make his trip more meaningful.
First, he should invite a group of Baghdad journalists mostly Iraqis, but also a few Westerners who've been in Iraq for several years for a chat. This would not be a press conference; Obama would be asking all the questions. The majority of journalists live in the Red Zone and see much more of Iraqi life than anybody in the Iraqi government or the U.S. embassy. Iraqi journalists don't need to "embed" with U.S. troops in order to get to dangerous districts like Sadr City or Amariyah they live in those neighborhoods, and they could tell Obama a lot more about the Iraqi condition than he could glean from any number of official briefings.
Second, the Senator should ask the journalists to recommend some interesting and influential Iraqis with whom he should meet community leaders, NGO activists, even the odd independent-minded politician. Journalists meet such people all the time, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't mind sharing their contacts with Obama.
If there's not enough time to organize such a meeting, there's one surefire way Obama can meet Iraqis. At the main entrances to the Green Zone, there's almost always a long queue of folks waiting to get in, usually to visit a government office or a member of Parliament. Once they get past the elaborate security checks, they're usually made to wait on the lawns of the building that serves as Iraq's Parliament. It would be relatively easy for Obama to send a member of his entourage, accompanied by an Iraqi translator, to invite a random selection of these Iraqis for an informal chat few would turn down the chance to meet him.
If he gets a chance to meet them, Iraqis will give Obama plenty to think about facts and opinion that should inform his views on U.S. military and foreign policy. And they would do that without a single PowerPoint presentation.