Wednesday, February 27, 2008

McCain and the Iraq Issue

Will Iraq be a winning election issue for John McCain in November? Ramesh Ponnuru poses things this way:

Senator John McCain blurted out that if he can't convince Americans that our military effort in Iraq is succeeding, he'll lose the election. He then softened his assessment, saying that while his candidacy would not stand or fall on the Iraq question, it would be one of the top issues in the campaign.

I think Senator McCain is wrong. He can win the election even if a narrow majority of the country doubts that the surge is succeeding, and he may lose it even if people think that it is succeeding. (Right now, according to Gallup, 43 percent of Americans believe the surge is improving conditions in Iraq while 35 percent say it is making it worse.)

He is going to have to fight back against misrepresentations of his record. Senator Barack Obama, for example, has said that McCain favors a "100-year war in Iraq." In fact, McCain said that if the violence were to end, it might be possible to maintain a long-term American military presence in Iraq: the same type of presence we have maintained in South Korea, without extending the Korean war for decades.

My guess, though, is that the war will not be the top issue in this election. The big challenge for Senator McCain is not to sell the surge. It isn't even to demonstrate that he can fight a recession. It's to prove that he has answers to the economic concerns that middle-income Americans have, recession or no recession. In particular, he is going to have to make the case that his health-care plan is better than that of his Democratic opponent.

Do you agree that domestic issues are going to decide the 2008 election?

I agree up to a point. His job is to make the case that he'll provide competent and innovative economic, health, and social policy management, while at the same time he must convince the public that the war's too important to leave to a national security novice espousing recklessly ill-considered foreign policy proposals.

The success of the surge is a huge asset to McCain and the GOP, as it innoculates the party from Democratic attacks on war-making incompetence and provides a model for what we need to do in Afghanistan.

The Democratic agenda of retreat is an election year downer. I doubt either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can gain much traction on the issue.

But see Andrew Sullivan's post on Iraq, where he poses this challenge for McCain:

If McCain is going to give us straight talk - one thing the Bush administration has been completely unable to do - and believes that Iraq should remain a permanently integrated part of a new, expanding American protectorate in the Middle East, then he needs to say so. He needs to be honest about what his goal of turning Iraq into a stable, non-despotic, unified country, permanently occupied by US troops, requires. It will require trillions of dollars, a bare minimum of another decade of occupation, over 100,000 troops (probably more) committed indefinitely, and no lee-way to tackle any major security threats anywhere else on the planet including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, without a draft. Oh, and then there's a need to maintain US public support for the Sisyphean task of nation-building a place where there is no nation, in a place a long way away, where our reward for such an effort will be fathomless contempt and hatred.

Sullivan's attacking an alleged infinite commitment to the Iraqi people and wants McCain to justify it. But Sullivan provides no context: We have military commitments around the globe. Where can we redeploy and reduce in an effort to consolidate our more recent gains in Iraq?

Germany? South Korea?

What percentage of GDP is this "trillion dollars" Sullivan throws out? Is that an accurate figure? Will the costs of an Iraq foreward basing commitment be commensurate with the costs of earlier postwar security guarantees the U.S. has offered after its great conflicts?

These are the questions that McCain is best prepared to answer. Sure, Americans want to focus on domestic issues. They also want to reduce commitments overseas to allow a redirection of attention back home.

Yet, they don't want to lose in Iraq, and they're still concerned about radical Islamist terrorism. The U.S. is not making an unlimited, 1000 year guarantee to the Iraqi people. Putting our ongoing deployment in fiscal and historical context is the challenge for McCain in November.