The Democrats may call it “George Bush’s war,” but a new Pew Poll reveals that most Americans think we are going to win it. 53 percent of those polled said “the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals” in Iraq. Those who feel the war is going “very well” or “fairly well” have leaped from 30 percent about a year ago to 48 percent today. This new, widespread confidence in America’s Iraq effort presents a sizable problem for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom have used the “unpopular war” as a focal point.
Here is their unenviable task: to tell the American voter that his or her confidence in America’s ability to win at last is misplaced; to convince them what we need to do instead is pull our troops out and call for a troop surge in Afghanistan. Even more challenging for the Democrats is that time is not on their side. As recently as September 2007, only 42 percent of Americans believed the U.S. would succeed in Iraq. That number jumped 11 points in five months. The Democratic national convention is another five months away, and the benefits of the troop surge continue to mount. Just imagine the presidential nominee having to tell 64 percent of the country that they’re wrong about American victory.
The Democrats hitched their presidential hopes to a sense of national defeat that wasn’t sustained by circumstances. If there’s one thing every military expert will tell you, it’s that war is fluid. Defeatism does not allow for this fluidity. Once you declare a war lost, you’ve closed the door on the possibilities that arise with the changing nature of the fight and any potential innovations to capitalize on them. In this sense, defeatism is a practical handicap, whereas striving for victory necessarily depends upon the ability to adapt to a shifting landscape.
Enter John McCain. He recognized the failings of the Rumsfeld plan and, determined not to quit, pushed for new ideas. Having backed the Petraeus plan that’s responsible for the shift in Iraq, he doesn’t need to dance around the pro-victory majority—let alone convince them to throw in the towel. Seeing these new figures, the Democrats will at some point try to back off on the defeatist rhetoric, but there’s only so far they can go and not seem preposterous. A 180-degree turn on Iraq would create too much fallout about flip-flopping, experience, and character. It’s not clear how the Democrats are going to wriggle out of this one. But the man who changed when it most mattered can stay in one place for a while.