Why the Iraq Debate Confuses Me

Washington Matters

Why the Iraq Debate Confuses Me

Over the last several days, John McCain has repeatedly argued, sometimes in the same paragraph, that the surge in Iraq has been such a great success that it makes it possible for the U.S. to withdraw some troops in victory and honor -- and that Obama is wrong to insist on withdrawing troops from Iraq because that will mean defeat and dishonor. What am I missing?


I understand McCain's frustration. He did a courageous thing last year in backing the surge when everyone told him it would doom his campaign. He stood alone in recommending the surge and persuading Bush to go for it, and it has paid off handsomely for Iraq.  Now he wants credit for being right, but all he sees is adoration for Barack Obama, who was against the surge.


Let's officially give McCain his due. He was right and thankfully, Bush finally listened to him. But now it's time to move on, and this is where McCain is caught between a rock and a hard place.


A funny thing happened in Iraq this past week. A consensus developed that it's time to withdraw troops along a timeline very similar to the 16-month plan that Obama has been pushing for two years. The Wall Street Journal says everyone from the Iraqi prime minister to President Bush to U.S. commanders on the ground are in essential agreement on that. Oh, there is still a dispute over whether it should be called a timeline and how firm it should be, but there is a general consensus on the idea (and even Obama is not wedded to 16 months).


McCain stands almost alone in defying the consensus. He seems to favor a more permanent presence, but as New York Times Middle East expert Tom Friedman points out today, the Iraqis don't want a permanent presence, and Iraq is, after all, a sovereign country. Friedman makes a strong case for concluding that it is Obama, the foreign policy naif, who has a better understanding of Mideast politics and culture than McCain, the national security expert.


And then there is Afghanistan. McCain acknowledged last week that the war in Afghanistan is going badly and that the U.S. needs to send more troops, a position Obama has held for months but which McCain rejected until now.


The problem for McCain is that we can't send more troops to Afghanistan until we pull more out of Iraq. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that yesterday in an interview on PBS, even as he agreed that the need in Afghanistan is urgent.


It's hard to tell who is winning the public debate over this. McCain is scoring points by declaring that his plan leads to victory and honor -- two concepts that Americans are pretty strongly in favor of. He also makes a strong point  in hammering Obama for refusing to admit the surge was a success.


Obama really should do that, if for no other reason than to allow the debate to move forward. In fact, he has acknowledged that the surge brought a big increase in security but says there are other factors involved (true enough) and stops short of calling it a success, perhaps because he knows he'll get attacked for flip-flopping if he does.


But even without putting the surge debate to rest, Obama has succeeded in turning this debate to the future, a future that looks beyond Iraq. He skips neatly over what will happen if Iraq falls into chaos without a big U.S. presence, but a lot of Americans are probably willingly to skip along with him. They want to move on. And ultimately, that's McCain's biggest problem.