In February, John McCain said that if he could not convince the American public that the U.S. was winning the Iraq War, he would not make it into the White House. He was exactly wrong.
Believe it or not, McCain is a victim of his own success. He supported the troop surge that turned Iraq from a hopeless disaster into a critical triumph–the same troop surge that’s allowed Americans to let Iraq slip from their radar. With the war no longer perceived as a pressing calamity, what care American voters which candidate has the best Iraq plan?
Americans no longer need to be convinced that the U.S. is winning. From a McCain campaign standpoint, progress in Iraq occurred almost too quickly after that February pronouncement. There was no palpable shift in public attitudes, just a stealthy flood of change that suddenly left McCain’s invaluable contribution looking irrelevant. And Barack Obama’s camp is taking full advantage. Obama foreign policy advisor Susan Rice recently said “Sen. McCain, he’s running for commander in chief of Iraq,” and Obama “believes we need to focus on the full panoply of threats we face.” This disingenuous characterization will gain more traction in voters’ minds than the McCain camp’s many accurate attempts to expose Obama’s misjudgment and indecision on Iraq.
At a certain point in the war (perhaps it was when the number of American troop deaths surpassed the number of those killed on 9/11, or it was the admission of no WMD, or the Abu Ghraib scandal, or it was the umpteenth high-profile suicide bombing, or the umpteenth declaration of “civil war”) Americans decided they wanted to move on more than they wanted to win. Talk of withdrawal began to drown out talk of victory. And talk of victory became surreal and deconstructed, anyway. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi said,” “You can define victory any way you want,” and added that war was merely “a situation to be resolved.”
John McCain made the mistake of defining victory according to tradition and of trying to win a situation most just wanted to resolve. McCain’s decisive challenge was not convincing Americans of the possibility of U.S. victory. His challenge was convincing Americans that such a victory was vital and moral, even in spite of the prices paid. In the wake of the Bush administration’s chronically mishandled public relations, McCain inherited an unenviable, if not impossible, task. Americans are through hearing moral and existential arguments about the need to win foreign wars. They want to know what they’re getting on the domestic front. In helping America dodge the biggest bullet she’s faced in modern history, John McCain has also helped steer the electorate toward Obama.