Commentary Magazine


McCain’s Iraq Challenge

John McCain put it bluntly yesterday: if he is unable to convince Americans that the troop surge is working in Iraq and that U.S. casualties there have fallen, he’ll lose in November. He immediately backed down from that stark correlation, but the fact remains that McCain is running as the heir to “George Bush’s war.” His challenge is a funny one. A “war-fatigued” public prefers an immediate end to the fighting over a gradual victory, and while the facts are overwhelmingly on McCain’s side, no one has yet been able to convince the public that the facts are, indeed, the facts.

As Rich Lowry notes in his new National Review article about Iraq:

Almost every indicator of violence is headed in the right direction. Last year’s indispensable abbreviation, EJK, or extra-judicial killings—meaning sectarian murders—is barely heard now. The sectarian civil war has dissipated in Baghdad. Nationwide, enemy actions are down about 60 percent since June. In December, American casualties were at early-2004 levels.

The al Qaeda violence that continues to plague the northern city of Mosul will, in all likelihood, soon come to an end as Iraqi and American forces are poised to route the remaining terrorists from their final stronghold. Furthermore, the long-awaited political progress preemptively dismissed by Nancy Pelosi and both Democratic frontrunners is now underway. The country’s parliament has passed three laws critical to the viability of Iraqi statehood.

So: why does McCain face a challenge at all? Shouldn’t Americans be thrilled at the turnaround in Iraq? Evidently not. The nation’s collective masochism seemed to pass a vital threshold once the Iraq War proved tougher than they expected. The two things anti-war Americans never tire of saying are “we can’t win” and, more importantly, “what does winning mean anyway?” In this last question lies the crux of McCain’s uphill battle. He’s got to convince an electorate that has deconstructed the concept of victory that we are indeed victors.

But before he can do that, he has to pierce the negativity that Democrats and the MSM have saddled us with. For all Barack Obama’s hopeful poetry, his true message is that things are currently abysmal. In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger punctured the bubble of rhetoric around a recent Obama speech. Henninger stripped the speech of lofty allusions and revealed its meager substantive core.

Here’s [Obama’s] American: “lies awake at night wondering how he’s going to pay the bills . . . she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can’t afford health care for a sister who’s ill . . . the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin’ Donuts after school just to make ends meet . . . I was not born into money or status . . . I’ve fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant . . . to make sure people weren’t denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from . . . Now we carry our message to farms and factories.”

What’s resonating with voters is not the idea that America is great, but that she can be so after a little scolding. McCain’s telling them that there are some things already worth celebrating about our country puts limits on their Obama-inspired fantasies. Whether it’s the economy, class warfare, real warfare, or America’s standing in the world, McCain is up against the entrenched (and savored) impression that America is in decline. Not only will McCain have to convince the public that we’re winning the war, but he’ll have to make them see that we deserve to win it. Michael Moore made a record-breaking blockbuster film asserting that Iraqi insurgents are the moral equivalent of our Revolutionary War minutemen. Getting that movie’s millions of viewers to recognize (and celebrate) a U.S. military victory is John McCain’s task.

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