John McCain met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and, at least from the pool report, it appears that there was a genuine expression of affection and understanding between the two. Meanwhile, Barack Obama seems poised for some reassessment on Iraq, or at least a political course correction. And there is a difference between the two.
The former, a true reassessment, would entail some real recognition that the changes in Iraq are significant both on the political and military fronts. (As Peter Hegseth points out, so far Obama’s utterances and official campaign statements remain frozen in 2006.) This would entail an understanding that the surge was responsible for these turn of events (they did not come about by magic) and that absent a continued commitment to aid the Iraqis’ progress much, if not all, of the progress could be lost. So far, we’ve seen none of this from Obama.
An Obama course correction that is mere political cover may be more likely. Obama may emphasize that he always left some wriggle room for the pace of withdrawal (paging Samantha Power!) and that recent developments simply allow him to push ahead with his plans to refocus our forces elsewhere.
The difference between these two options is not simply rhetorical. The voters are entitled to know if an Obama administration really will see through political and military challenges that remain in Iraq, resist calls from the Democratic base to adhere to his previous withdrawal plans, and express a commitment to Iraq in a way that projects certainly to both Iraqis and those who seek to undermine a unified and stable government. Absent a fully articulated policy pronouncement, all that seems a pipe dream. Granted, even if Obama managed a very deliberate and full-throated policy reversal, voters are entitled to wonder if this, too, will become another “never mind” policy shift a month or a year from now.
We will see in the weeks ahead if there is no change, an atmospheric change or a genuine shift in Obama’s thinking. And then voters will have to assess how meaningful and credible that change of heart, if any, really is. What we do know is that had Obama had his way — either when he was advocating a troop withdrawal on a monthly basis or when he voted to immediately cut funding — none of the progress we now have seen would have come about. That tells us something not just about Iraq but about his potential reaction to future, as yet unknown, crises.
Aside from all this, it is not clear how much this all matters in the presidential race. (Thomas Friedman may be right that it is on the economy and not Iraq or even the wider issue of Islamic terrorism where the race will be won or lost.) Whether the voters care about Iraq and whether they will consider Obama’s failure to support the most significant strategic turnaround in recent military history to be a fatal error remains very much an open question.