Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 21, 2008
WAR/POLITICS: Are We There Yet? Victory in Iraq and the 2008 Election

"Events, dear boy, events."

--Former British PM Harold Macmillan on the greatest threat to any government's plans.

"In chaos there is opportunity"

--Variously attributed.

It's time for Republicans to decide: are we willing to stake the election on the proposition that we have won the war in Iraq?

I. Prelude: Early 2007

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Way back at the beginning of 2007, at the beginning of the marathon primary race, the Republican frontrunner, John McCain, and the Democratic upstart, Barack Obama, committed themselves to their respective strategies for the Iraq War. McCain, a vocal supporter of the war and leader in the debate about the war as far back as 2002 - and, indeed, one of the leading voices on every public foreign policy controversy of the last two decades - stubbornly declared that he would "rather lose an election than lose a war," and committed the success of his campaign to the success of the "surge," the decision by President Bush after the 2006 elections to revamp his Iraq strategy with more troops and a freer hand for Gen. David Petraeus to pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency. The surge wasn't entirely McCain's idea, but McCain had been the most vocal advocate for years for a larger and more agressive troop presence, and with the President finally having taken his advice, he staked his political fortunes on a turnaround in Iraq.

Obama, by contrast, had blasted the Iraq War in an October 2002 speech, but had been cautiously distant from the war debate since then (as documented in this video and the McCain campaign briefing paper linked here, Obama's few public statements on the war between 2003 and 2006 indicated that he was opposed to a precipitous withdrawal); he could have chosen a more moderate position, but instead came out opposing the surge, saying in January 2007:

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse. . . . [I] did not see anything . . . that provides evidence that an additional 15,000 to 20,000 more U.S. troops is going to make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that's taking place there.

Typically of Obama's approach to the primaries, he then went even further, calling for troop drawdowns beginning in May 2007 and the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008. (His plan also called for a desperate effort at "regional diplomacy" with Iran and Syria, under an absurd 60-day deadline). Obama, in short, banked on the political unpopularity of the Iraq War - which had been a factor in the just-completed rout of the Congressional GOP in November 2006 - and staked his credibility on the proposition that the surge would fail and the U.S. should be leaving Iraq immediately.

II. State of Play: Spring 2007-Spring 2008

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Politically, most of 2007 and the first half of 2008 were taken up with McCain and Obama fighting opponents within their own parties, although the GOP primary field didn't include anyone other than Ron Paul who challenged McCain head-on on Iraq, preferring to attack him on domestic issues. Nonetheless, McCain's political fortunes rose as evidence poured in that the surge was succeeding, winning him the respect of GOP voters who often disagreed with him on other issues.

Meanwhile, Obama used his newly unambiguous hostility to the Iraq War to seduce the anti-war Left and paint his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as insufficiently principled and lacking in judgment for not having opposed the war from the beginning. New facts on the ground in Iraq never really figured into the Democratic debate, since neither candidate could afford to alienate voters who saw the war as a bad decision and irretrievably lost.

Republicans, having lost most of the PR battles about the war's commencement, and given the unpopularity of President Bush, assumed that the best strategy for the fall campaign against Obama would be to look forward and draw contrasts with his plan - still on the shelf, but with only the dates changed - to begin a withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable, with little regard for intervening developments on the ground and even less for the sentiments of an Iraqi democracy that Obama would have been just as happy to see never called into existence. McCain's own declared strategy was to continue keeping our commitment to Iraq open-ended, with no more specific timeframe than a general promise of McCain's goal to win the war by the end of his first term. Obama's campaign, recognizing the limits of running as a peacenik, seemed content to do a lot of the same, not avoiding the issue of the war's commencement but focusing less energy on 2002 and more on an egregious misquoting of McCain designed to make it sound as if he wanted 100 years of war in Iraq.

As late as the end of June 2008, the status quo held - McCain kept talking about doing whatever it takes to win, Obama about a fixed schedule for withdrawal to formalize defeat. But finally, the facts on the ground have started shifting dramatically enough to force the terms of the debate to change.

III. New Realities: July 2008

The first cracks in the lines of battle came just before the July 4 weekend, when Obama made statements suggesting that he was open to considering a more flexible approach to Iraq based on the facts on the ground. Conservatives generally took this as a disingenuous effort to blur the contrast with McCain's successful and facts-based approach, but Obama hastily called a second press conference on the same day to walk back his comments, leaving open again the possibility of a clear contrast.

What has happened since then is a snowballing of momentum, driven largely outside the control of the two candidates, by another candidate running in his own elections: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As is often the case in countries defended under the U.S. umbrella - Germany, South Korea, the Philippines - Iraqi public opinion, as variously measured, has been decidedly ambivalent towards its U.S. protectors, and statements over the years by Maliki have reflected that - Iraqis would like the U.S. to leave, but have generally not felt that their leaders and institutions were ready to stand up and take the place of the Americans. Thus, Maliki has frequently spoken of wanting to end the large-scale U.S. presence (while engaging in back-and-forth negotiations with our government over a more limited presence in permanent bases), but he has never called for an immediate withdrawal, or even an immediate commencement of any long-term plan for withdrawal.

Now, however, that is beginning to shift. First, came the news that Maliki and President Bush have reached an initial agreement on the long-term withdrawal plan:

President Bush, who'd been opposed to any timetable for removing American forces from Iraq, reached an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set a "general time horizon" for a withdrawal.

Next came the news from fiercely anti-war and anti-Bush German magazine Der Spiegel that Maliki appeared to have endorsed the 16-month timeframe now pushed by Obama. This was met with predictably fatuous commentary from the Democrats suggesting that somehow Obama had been right all along:

"It's a devastating blow to the McCain campaign - not just that Maliki moved to Obama's position but that Bush did as well," said Richard Holbrooke, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations for the Clinton administration.

Of course, it's nonsense to suggest that a withdrawal by, say, May 2010 is the same as a withdrawal by March 2008. In the business world or the sports world, being wrong by a margin of more than two years is called "being wrong." Only in politics can you get away with such a thing. It's also nonsense to say that Bush is listening to Obama when Bush only got to where he is now by doing the exact opposite of what Obama was telling him to do for the past year and a half. If someone tells you, "don't eat that sandwich," and you eat the sandwich, and you stop eating when there's no sandwich left, can he then say "you followed my advice! See, you are not eating the sandwich anymore"? Obama is just stealing the credit for other people who succeeded by ignoring him.

Moreover, subsequent news reports revealed that Maliki's statement had been mistranslated and/or baldly misquoted by Der Spiegel, as evidenced by the fact that even the New York Times now translated his statement as follows:

The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki's comments by The Times: "Obama's remarks that - if he takes office - in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq."

He continued: "Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq."

Patterico also notes that Der Spiegel initially qualified Maliki's remarks as saying "[a]ssuming that positive developments continue", a position wholly at odds with the 16-and-out timetable approach. Certainly Maliki is distancing himself now from Der Speigel's account, so even if it was accurately reported, no honest person can claim that it represents the position of Maliki's government. (More from Mark Impomeni here).

IV. McCain's Dilemma, McCain's Opportunity

A. The Right Policy

Where does this all leave McCain? Regardless of the flap over Der Spiegel, the fact remains that momentum for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is suddenly building faster among the staunchest supporters of the war - specifically President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki - than anyone would have anticipated. A general but flexible "time horizon" is slightly less rigid than fixed timetables, but it's not actually a large difference; the large difference is the extent to which conditions on the ground are suitable for announcing such a schedule. All (but the diehard Barackheads) now agree that the conditions for a time frame for withdrawal were not in existence when Obama proposed his schedule in early 2007. In fact, Obama himself has effectively been forced to admit this, in this grudging passage in last Tuesday's speech:

It has been 18 months since President Bush announced the surge. As I have said many times, our troops have performed brilliantly in lowering the level of violence. General Petraeus has used new tactics to protect the Iraqi population. We have talked directly to Sunni tribes that used to be hostile to America, and supported their fight against al Qaeda. Shiite militias have generally respected a cease-fire. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them.

In other words, even if we really do start withdrawing troops, it will be on far better terms than if we had fled the field behind Obama's call for retreat last spring. But is it wise to do so?

Let's recall a few basics here. First, while the primary goal of the war in the first place was to remove Saddam's regime, a goal that many of us recognized would result in huge dislocations as Iraq sought new institutions to replace the regime, goal #1 of the post-invasion period has always been an Iraqi government that has popular legitimacy and the willingness and ability to defend its own territory against foreign jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and aggressive neighbors like Iran. The necessary corollary of that goal is that once the Iraqis were willing and able to do the job without our help, we would leave. McCain in 2004 took that view as well:

[In] a 2004 interview with McCain ...he responded to a question asking what he would do if "a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there" by saying, "If it was an elected government of Iraq ... I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people."

Increasingly, Maliki is saying they will be willing. But when the time comes that they are ready to put that to the test, will they be able? It seems unavoidable that for our larger long-term project in the region to succeed, we have to step back and give them the chance to determine their own path, even if it's against our better judgment, just as we have stood by with only periodic and limited interference as the post-Communist and Communist-aligned states have gone their many different ways since 1989. The job will never be done in Iraq, any more than it is done today in Ukraine or Nicaragua.

Second, and relatedly, there were always two distinct lines of conservative criticism about setting timeables for withdrawal:

1. Iraq isn't ready for us to leave, so we can't start leaving.
2. As long as the enemy is strong enough to hit back or to go to ground for a while, we can't publicly announce when we will leave.

Realistically, both of these criticisms are based on the same factual assumption: that we have not yet vanquished the enemy. Nobody ever said timetables were a bad idea once you have cemented a victory. The question is whether we have sufficiently passed the point of no return where victory is inevitable regardless of what the enemy does, so that we can openly start drawing people down and trust that the Iraqis have the situation in hand without us. No serious person thought last spring that we could reach that point by now - but are we there yet?

I must be honest: I don't know. I would love to believe that we have; an unalloyed American victory in Iraq and the ability to get most of our troops out of there would be the greatest news we have had in a long time. But progress over the last several years has been frustratingly slow, often of the four-steps-forward-three-steps-back variety, and sometimes the other way around, and we've had false springs before - Al Qaeda in Iraq in particular has looked dead and vanquished at times, notably with the death of Zarqawi and rolling-up of his leadership cadre, only to regenerate itself. (Then again, the renewed vigor of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan of late would seem to support Hitchens' point - our enemy in both theaters is drawing from the same basic pool of jihadists, and more of them pouring into Afghanistan may indicate that they are finally giving up hope of beating us in Iraq as a futile drain on their efforts). Jeff Emanuel explained in detail last fall why the surge's progress was too fragile to survive a coalition withdrawal; it's an open question and not an easy one for Bush, McCain, Gen. Petraeus and the other serious adults to decide whether it's really a good decision to start announcing even a relatively flexible and open-ended withdrawal plan. If they don't feel that it is, it will at least be incumbent on them to make their case forcefully to Maliki for more patience.

B. The Right Politics

Republicans, saddled with the responsibility of actually carrying out policy, have not had the freedom the Democrats have had to press simple slogans of the moment, paint with broad-brush generalities, and advocate mutually inconsistent policies at different times. Combine that with the Bush Administration's congenital inability to do the hard work of defending its past decisions and explaining to the American people what was happening as it happened, and Republicans have missed many opportunities to bolster public support for the war, to the detriment of the party and, far more importantly, to the detriment of the war effort. The stakes remain high: we can't afford Obama's weak, misguided and uninformed leadership if we are to win the broader war. To beat Obama, we need to tell a clear, simple story that illustrates the contrast between McCain and Obama. Victory in Iraq is a tempting opportunity to do this...but is it a case that can fairly and honestly be made, or would it be dangerously premature?

If we really are facing a convergence on the future - if we're close enough to victory in Iraq that victory could now survive even an Obama presidency - then John McCain may truly have lived up to his mantra, losing an election while winning a war. But there's no reason why the party that has been solely responsible for setting our course in Iraq should suffer from the success of that endeavor. If McCain believes that he can make a responsible case that victory really is at hand, he should not hesitate to make it, and use it to drive home the point that with the nation still at war in Afghanistan and still threatened by radical Islamism in Iran and around the globe, the man whose strategy for finishing the job in Iraq should be trusted over the man who counseled retreat when it turned out we were one final surge from victory. Americans, after all, like winners, and don't so much like people who make losing bets with our lives and our money.

As a political strategy, declaring victory has its risks, not least that it will work only if McCain and Bush can stay on the same rhetorical page on this issue, and that it gives the enemy a say - events, dear boy, events. As a matter of national security strategy, though, it comes back to the same dilemma that Obama never need worry about and isn't qualified to judge anyway: actually doing the right thing to ensure that we win the war. Because if the nation needs to hear that American troops have much more work to do in Iraq, then perhaps the GOP will need to take its political lumps to do what is right, and let Obama take credit for whatever happens to be popular. The pundits can't answer that question for McCain and Bush (although they are doomed on both fronts if they come to different conclusions). They must face that decision themselves.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:13 PM | War 2007-12 | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

"It seems unavoidable that for our larger long-term project in the region to succeed, we have to step back and give them the chance to determine their own path, even if it's against our better judgment, just as we have stood by with only periodic and limited interference as the post-Communist and Communist-aligned states have gone their many different ways since 1989. The job will never be done in Iraq, any more than it is done today in Ukraine or Nicaragua."

Exactly. And that should be the Republican response to the whole dilemma. Honor the request of the Iraqi's to withdraw the troops, but don't go out of your way to proclaim victory - that's too risky. It would take much of the wind out of Obama's sails if the Republicans were withdrawing from Iraq before the election.

This has some nice foreign policy spill-over effects as well. Republicans can use some of those troops to pursue bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan, and Iran will be much less inclined about pursuing an aggressive foreign policy when it realizes we are no longer tied down in Iraq.

Posted by: MVH at July 21, 2008 3:45 PM

McCain will do what he always does with every political issue throughout his career; he will wet his finger, stick it into the political winds, and change his positions according to the public direction. Currently everyone is clamoring for withdrawl, Maliki, even the Bush admin is setting time horizons, the American public in polling. So...McCain quite rapidly is going to shift from advocating indefinite occupation and emphasizing the fragility of Iraq to simply declaring victory and patting himself and the Bush administration on the back. I'm telling, you watch closely his words this summer...his shift has begun. It's not principle that motivates him, its winning the election.

Posted by: robert at July 21, 2008 4:10 PM

If you want to play the game of who had the best foresight in Iraq McCain loses every time; because eventually we’ll always go back to October, 2002 – that’s when Obama had the courage stand up against this war of choice when so few did.

Regarding the success of the surge, I think it’s a symptom of the Bush administration finally operating like an open and competent administration with strong voices like Robert Gates, Ryan Crocker, Gen Petraeus -- even Henry Paulson, all taking charge.

Why did this finally happen after six years of unbridled arrogance and incompetence? I credit the Democratic Congress for loosening the death grip of career bureaucrat and master of Washington inside politics Dick Cheney over the administration, and limiting the influence of Karl Rove and his all politics all the time approach to governing.

Posted by: Patrick at July 21, 2008 9:54 PM

Crank, see my prior comments on other posts regarding lefty mental patients and how they just create their own reality, regardless of what the facts are or what they themselves said a year ago, a month ago, a week ago

For the last year plus this is what we heard from them-The surge is a failure, you honestly don't believe its working do you you sheep, quagmire, quagmire, McCain is a senile, war monger old fool for even suggesting it might work, failure, failure-now that their masters (MSM/Democratic Party) can't hide or explain away the success anymore they develop the usual liberal-nesia (past examples include all their memories about what the Clinton Administration/the democrats said about Iraq from 1993-2000 and how the moonbats wanted to invade Iran instead of Iraq) about what their masters said and what they themselves repeated verbatim in the same wide eyed nostril flaring way they write their posts. They then just create new facts and use tortured reasoning to weave a new reality.

Again, I dont know if they are in fact actually delusional or just totally lacking in personal honesty and honor.

Posted by: dch at July 21, 2008 10:48 PM

When Obama opposed the war when few else did? By "few else" you mean the entire black caucus, right?

Yeah, that took some courage.

*snicker*

Crazy or dishonest, dch, they're always good for a laugh.

Posted by: spongeworthy at July 22, 2008 10:38 AM

You got it spongey. The entire black caucus was right while the rest of you chose the biggest foreign policy disaster of this generation.

Can't wait for D'Souza to use this to explain how blacks are just plain smarter than whites. Looks like he had the bell-curve backwards.

Posted by: Berto at July 22, 2008 10:56 AM

The problem with most left-leaning perspectives on the war is that they base their statements on the belief that the war was and is wrong. There is clear factual evidence to contradict these beliefs, but because they were the loudest and most consistent that the United States was "misled into war on the belief that Saddam had WMDs." As noted in the column, the main focus was the person who was in control of those WMDs.

Saddam had a proven record of instability; with Iran's effort to emerge as an international force, there is no doubt that Saddam's instability would have continued to grow. Of course, when the real threat to him is Iran's emergence, he would turn on the usual targets to demonstrate his relevance: Israel, the US, and the west as a whole.

True, conservatives tend to view the war as being the correct choice. But in most prominent conservative commentaries, you will read that it was a hard choice, that history may not completely absolve the choice, and that the decision to engage Iraq has had dire consequences for us. But the long-term benefits (even right now) outweigh the alternative. McCain takes the same tone: the tough decisions can be proven correct with resolve.

That is the tone that needs to be emphasized. Obama and other anti-war advocates have run down Iraq with simple phrases like: no WMDs, Bush lied, no blood for oil, ficticious war, endless war. All of these are at least partially false statements. McCain needs to contradict them with a clear message about why Saddam was a threat and how his threat would have grown in the past five years; not back down on the reality that WMDs were only a tertiary factor in the decision to go to war; that the formula for putting Iraqis in control is difficult but no different in Iraq than Germany and Japan, and in the war on terrorism than the Cold War.

Success may not be that clear cut, but I think people would be ok if Iraq achieved the same stability as most formerly explosive but now controlled Latin American democracies. No one wants to keep fighting forever, but American and western success has bred contempt, and no American can lay down and forfeit the successes of two hundred years because idealogues and extremists continually challenge us.

Posted by: Livingston at July 22, 2008 11:29 AM

They then just create new facts and use tortured reasoning to weave a new reality.

And the reason you are impotent is because your wife has ED.

Get a job in a movie theater - your projecting talents are prodigious.

Posted by: El at July 22, 2008 12:10 PM

Livingston:

"The problem with most left-leaning perspectives on the war is that they base their statements on the belief that the war was and is wrong."

There are good reasons for thinking the Iraq war was wrong, and there are bad ones. It's odd that you mention the WMD argument because that is one of the better ones. WMD's were the stated, public reason for the war, and there turned out to be none in Iraq.

Your second paragraph does not contain any facts, it's just pure conjecture. It's not at all clear that Saddam would have reacted in any of the ways you suggested, apart from the occasional, verbal bluster against the West and minor violations of the restrictions placed upon him. The sense, internationally, prior to the WMD flap, was that Saddam was reasonably contained with the measures in place - measures which could be increased if necessary.

The opposition to the war in Iraq is not just a conservative/liberal divide, although it seems that both Republicans and Democrats address it that way because it is politically expedient.

Posted by: MVH at July 22, 2008 12:30 PM

WMD's were the stated, public reason for the war, and there turned out to be none in Iraq.

Here's one now, dch. Crazy or dishonest? You decide, but either way don't forget to point and laugh.

Posted by: spongeworthy at July 22, 2008 12:50 PM

MVH,

There are good reasons to think the war is both right/wrong now, and there are good reasons to think it was right/wrong when it began. What I meant to convey was that the anti-Iraq war spokesmen for the left treat it as definitely wrong in both categories before addressing how to deal with it. Conservative literature generally acknowledges the initial dilemma of entering war and the current problems before concluding that it is was, and still is, worth the effort. There is a difference

The second paragraph about Saddam's instability, while conjecture, is as reasonable as the oft-heard proposition that he posed no true threat to US security, and is more grounded in fact than the latter argument. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6238435.stm. The Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq had the potential before we engaged to go beyond the elements of civil war and make for a larger regional conflict involving an Iran that wanted to see itself as being the dominant player in the Middle East, as they want to see themselves now.

You're certainly right about the anti/pro split not being as simple as left/right. Isolationist southern conservatives are a prime example of the gray area, as much as Tom Wolfe and Joe Lieberman's support for the war is an example of crossing the other way. Opposition to the war is too often entangled with personal dislike of Bush. McCain should seperate the two, articulate that he had a variety of still relevant reasons for supporting the war, and not let the clarity of his vision for Iraq (right or wrong to the public) be confused with Obama's recent confusion of his and McCain's plans.

Posted by: Livingston at July 22, 2008 1:08 PM

"Opposition to the war is too often entangled with personal dislike of Bush."

Yes, I definitely agree with this. Many decided that anything the Bush administration did during the war was wrong or would definitely fail, which led to some frankly ridiculous arguments that really undercut some of their better ones.

It's rather obvious the surge, at the very least, contributed to the relative peace which now exists in Iraq. Maybe it will last, maybe it won't, but why is that fact so hard to admit? It doesn't undercut the better arguments for opposing the war, and it happens to be true, so why debate it? Besides, just because one believes the adminstration was wrong in fighting the war doesn't mean it won't do so competently. I don't happen to think that George Bush is the brightest man in the world, but I don't extend that belief to every member of his staff and the entire military.

As for Saddam Hussein, without WMD's, I don't think he was enough of a threat to US security to justify the war. He was successfully (and rightly) rebuffed in the first Gulf War, and we had him effectively contained at the time.

The idea that Iran would have seriously involved itself in any Iraqi Sunni/Shiite conflict should have been viewed as an extremely remote possibility. There is little chance Iran would do that with the US/UN containment going on in Iraq. I would be really shocked and disappointed if that turned out to be an underlying motivation for the war.

I couldn't view that BBC article, they must have pulled it off their website.

Posted by: MVH at July 22, 2008 2:12 PM

It upsets me how the Democratic consensus is that we were "misled" into the war because of the absence of WMD's. We knew that he had them at one point. Some of our intelligence indicated that he still had them. It turns out that he didn't, as far as we know. Maybe Bush listened to the wrong intelligence, but he didn't lie to us. The left's use of "misled" is one of the biggest lies in current US politics. I guess people want to feel better about changing their position on the war in the middle of it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, I don't know why people need to be feed the lie that they were lied to.

Posted by: KDH at July 24, 2008 11:09 PM

spongeworthy:

"Here's one now, dch. Crazy or dishonest? You decide, but either way don't forget to point and laugh."

Seeing as you praised my honesty on one of my other posts about Obama, I'm assuming you are choosing crazy. You can think what you want, but insinuating that I'm a lefty, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, is a real stretch of the imagination.

Posted by: MVH at July 25, 2008 11:00 AM
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