Friday, August 22, 2008

Defining the Campaign's Iraq Narrative

I get the sense, from the response to my Iraq post this morning, and by a look around the leftosphere, that the antiwar types still think Iraq's a winning campaign issue for Barack Obama. Of course, we heard all about it last month when the leftists went ape with claims that Nouri al-Maliki had endorsed Barack Obama's 16-month plan for retreat from Iraq.

The truth is that no matter how much Democrats try to spin it, Obama's been a surrender hawk from the beginning, and he opposed the surge that has made all of this discussion possible. Not only that,
McCain's runaway train in national security polling long ago left the station.

Nevertheless, as the left continues to hammer away on the "
Iraq disaster" meme, it might be helpful to clarify the narrative on the war for the post-Labor Day campaign.

Thomas Donnelly makes the case in his esssay, "
McCain Is the Clear and Courageous Commander in Chief":

In the end, it’s about Iraq. Sure, pocketbook and social issues matter, but the president does not command the economy or the mores of the American people. For Barack Obama, the clear call to withdraw from Iraq was the sole policy difference with Hillary Clinton; the rest was personality. For John McCain, the clear call to stay the course was the rallying point that brought his candidacy back from the graveyard.

Thus the presidential contest remains, most centrally, a contest to define the Iraq narrative, both in content and meaning. To Senator Obama, it was a mistake from the start and a strategic sideshow that diverted American attention from finishing the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. To Senator McCain, Iraq was the central front in the struggle against Islamic extremism and in what we have come to call “the long war” to build a more liberal and stable order in the greater Middle East. So when the candidates made back-to-back appearances before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, the Iraq debate was the lead item in both candidates’ speeches, elbowing aside any discussion of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and even the necessary kowtowing on the subject of veterans’ benefits.

Senator McCain spoke on Monday and went right at it: “Though victory in Iraq is finally in sight, a great deal still depends on the decisions and good judgment of the next president…. The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines.” The success of the Iraq surge has reinforced Senator McCain’s belief in his own judgment and the possibility of victory.

Senator Obama isn’t backing down from the narrative of trying to minimize the consequences of what he sees as an Iraq defeat. To him the surge was a costly failure: “We have lost over 1,000 American lives and spent billions of dollars since the surge began, but Iraq’s leaders still haven’t made hard compromises or substantial investments in rebuilding their country.” Echoing the line long ago advanced by Carl Levin, the Democratic senator from Michigan and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Barack Obama argues that a redeployment from Iraq within 16 months is the only way to “press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.”

It was also revealing to note where the speeches sought sources of authority for their arguments. Senator McCain cited Gen. David Petraeus and “our troops on the ground when they say, as they have on my many trips to Iraq, ‘Let us win. Just let us win.’” Senator Obama noted that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, has embraced his 16-month withdrawal timetable.

How the candidates interpret the larger strategic meaning of Iraq uncovers an even deeper divide. Senator McCain sees Iraq as one theater — the central theater — among many in the long war. Underlying that analysis is a traditional understanding of geopolitical realities: Iraq is an inherently strong and oil-rich nation in the Arab heartland (a view shared, as it happens, by Osama bin Laden). Senator Obama sees Afghanistan and the tribal areas that have been Al Qaeda sanctuaries as the key front. While he realizes that these may be inherently poor and powerless regions in the traditional sense, he still sees the struggle as a “war on terrorism” and Al Qaeda in particular. In sum, we have a choice between the broad and narrow interpretations of what the war is.

Americans haven’t quite decided which of these Iraq narratives they prefer, which is why the presidential race is essentially a tie. According to a Reuters/Zogby poll released Wednesday morning, John McCain has overtaken Barack Obama. Americans prefer commanders in chief who exhibit clarity and courage rather than nuance and intellect, Dwight Eisenhower to Adlai Stevenson. That’s an advantage for John McCain.

As David Gergen noted on Wednesday, Barack Obama needs "a game changer," and the change needed is to shift the campaign's narrative away from national security.

See also, Josh Hartman, "Obama Lacks Substance That McCain Displays."