Commentary Magazine

The Iraq Argument

John McCain has won the Iraq argument. The disagreement on Iraq between McCain and Barack Obama, indeed between Democrats and Republicans, was not about the future of American "neocolonialism" or about the candidates’ sympathy for the Marines and soldiers eager to return home. It was about the strategic benefit of keeping active U.S. troops in the War. John McCain believed that a continued American troop presence would hasten Iraq’s progress toward national security and political reconciliation. Barack Obama thought a speedy withdrawal would best achieve that goal. So there is no confusion on this point, let us consider the following:

Our troops have performed brilliantly in Iraq, but no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of somebody else’s civil war. That’s why I have introduced a plan to not only stop the escalation of this war, but begin a phased redeployment that can pressure the Iraqis to finally reach a political settlement and reduce the violence.

— Barack Obama, January 2007

The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops," Mr. Obama said. "Not in six months or one year – now.

— Barack Obama, September 2007

Now contrast those with the quotes below:

Sen. John McCain defended President Bush’s Iraq plan on Friday as a difficult but necessary move, parting company with lawmakers questioning the wisdom of the military build up.

"I believe that together these moves will give the Iraqis and Americans the best chance of success," said McCain, R-Ariz., a leading presidential contender for 2008.

–CBS News, January 2007

"I am not guaranteeing that this [U.S.troop build-up] succeeds. I am just saying that I think it can. I believe it has a good shot."

The most optimistic scenario he envisioned involved a steady reduction in violence and a gradual turnover of security responsibilities to the Iraqis during the remainder of the Bush administration. Under those circumstances, Mr. McCain said, the United States military would gradually withdraw to its bases in Iraq, though he did not provide a timetable for how long that might take.

— The New York Times, April 2007

We are currently in the midst of John McCain’s "most optimistic scenario." What we’re witnessing in Iraq is what McCain called success. Violence in Iraq is down to 2004 levels. Iraqi forces are taking the lead in more and more in successful operations countrywide. Al Qaeda is being marginalized. Political reconciliation is happening. Yesterday, even the anti-Iraq War Joe Klein acknowledged the manifestation of the scenario that McCain described in April 2007:

Daily attacks continue, but at a fraction of 2006 levels–indeed, at levels not seen since before the Sadrist and Falluja rebellions began in April of 2004. Al Qaeda in Iraq still has the capability to ignite the occasional car bomb, but it has been weakened to the point of defeat. The real estate market in Baghdad is beginning to blossom. And on a broader front, as reported in the New Yorker and The New Republic, Al Qaeda’s wanton butchery is facing an intellectual challenge from within its own ranks.

With the Iraq argument resolved in John McCain’s favor, Democrats, independent Obama supporters, and anti-war members of the media are now on the hunt for a new Iraq narrative–some hook that enables Barack Obama to look less than wrong.

Many try to claim that the two candidates’ positions have grown closer since the primaries, but that’s not true. The candidates never altered the positions described above. The facts on the ground simply determined who was right and who was wrong.

What we’re seeing now is the strident effort to manufacture a new post-success argument about Iraq. Obama fan, Andrew Sullivan, for example, has wasted no time in completely reframing the issue as "A Question of Empire":

That’s the critical question in this campaign: do Americans want a neo-empire in the Middle East? Do they want US troops permanently stationed in Iraq with up to 60 permanent bases? That’s what the Bush administration wants to foist onto Iraq; and that’s what McCain believes in. . . McCain would love to see US troops stationed peacefully in Iraq for the foreseeable future. To him it does not matter when they come home. What matters is that the casualty rate get low enough to persuade Americans they shouldn’t care about another expansion of American empire. In fact, the entire debate about bringing them home is puzzling and frustrating to McCain. After all, why should we bring them home when being there for ever is the point?

It wasn’t WMDs or Saddam’s threat that motivated this war, we now understand, so much as the capacity to forward station US troops in an oil-rich region and help contain Iran. Is this a good idea? That’s what the Iraqis are now furiously debating. And it’s what Americans should be furiously debating in this campaign. It’s the biggest difference between the two candidates and it couldn’t be more important.

The details are still hazy. Sullivan can’t decide if it’s empire or neo-empire (whatever that is) – all he knows is that in the face of U.S. success his entire conception of the war must undergo some drastic change. He, like most who bet against the surge, must now bend their anti-Bush, anti-McCain passions around the facts on the ground, and it isn’t going to be pretty.

Indeed the Obama camp itself is publicly conflicted about how to move the Iraq argument forward. Yesterday at a Democratic think tank even, two of Obama’s Iraq advisors disagreed with each other on how to proceed after the success of the surge. Colin Kahl argued for leaving a large troop presence in Iraq, contingent upon continued political reconciliation. Brian Katulis argued for withdrawing all troops except for a small group left behind to defend the U.S. embassy.

It’s clear that Obama and his supporters are guilty of the charge they’d grown accustomed to leveling at the Bush administration: no Iraq foresight. It’s true that President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had not come up with a plan B in the case of strong Iraqi resistance. Obama and Co. have failed to consider what their next move would be in the face of U.S. success.

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