Let's cut to the chase: last week should have been a good week on Iraq for John McCain and it wasn't. In an ideal world, of course, every week should be a good week on Iraq for McCain. It is his signature issue and he should be scoring points on it given the dramatic success that is manifesting itself in that country. But last week he took two hits when he should have been landing punches.
We are not saying this is fair. We are not saying we approve. We are saying it is happening and if McCain doesn't do something—soon—to correct the situation Iraq could become a big problem for his campaign and that is something he cannot afford.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. We have a suggestion that might change the tenor of the debate over Iraq and give McCain a big issue around which he can build other aspects of his campaign message. Something positive, optimistic, forward looking—and, as icing on the cake, something Barack Obama cannot do.
Senator McCain should declare victory in Iraq. And he should be generous in sharing the credit with our Iraqi allies.
The two hits McCain took are as follows:
For starters, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appeared to endorse Obama's most recent deadline for troop withdrawals. Then McCain declared that the "Anbar Awakening" began with the troop surge of 2007.
Now we know—believe us we know—that there are issues of translation, context etc., but the fact remains that Obama got in and out of Iraq unscathed--actually with his position on the war burnished--while McCain has had a lot of 'splaining to do, and the resulting confusion has been damaging.
So what's to be done? It seems to us that in both cases the problem stems from McCain's insistence on the primacy of the increased US troop levels in the success of the surge. The narrative McCain has used to explain improved conditions in Iraq (Bush/Rumsfeld/fewer troops=Failure, McCain/Petreaus/more troops=Success) was a politically expedient way to distance the candidate from an unpopular and difficult period of the war while allowing him to continue to support the effort.
Unfortunately, this version of events has turned into a liability and threatens to backfire. Looking at the events of last week, it might explain the remarks of the Iraqi prime minister, who took office in May, 2006 and probably likes to think his effectiveness is not as "new found" as McCain declared it to be in his recently rejected (but that's another issue) New York Times op-ed. The hostility towards Maliki displayed by Max Boot (who's an advisor to McCain) in the Washington Post was equally unfortunate. After all, Maliki's the one who had the guts to hang Saddam Hussein by the neck until dead before the President requested a single surge troop. So how about celebrating the fact that the Iraqis are exercising their rights as a sovereign, independent nation? That's a win. Obama could never call it that.
Then there's Anbar. As with Maliki, however, there's a date problem. Elements of the Anbar awakening were appearing as early as spring '06, and were apparent by the fall, and pretty much everyone who thinks there's a glimmer of hope for Iraq agrees that the shift away from al Qaeda in Anbar was a critical--if not the critical--change in circumstance that has fueled the developments in Iraq 2007-08. Obama has similarly inverted the timeline when he suggested that the events in Anbar were caused by the election of a Democratic Congress in the fall of 2006 - but then, nobody expects Obama to get his facts straight on Iraq. McCain doesn't get that pass. But he shouldn't need it here--he could just as effectively use Anbar as a demonstration of the independent ability of the Iraqis to manage their own affairs, not to mention the ingenuity and skill of our troops who helped the process along. It is a good thing, no matter when it happened.
Other similar issues lurk. The training of the Iraqi Security Forces, for example, which was taking place under none other than General Petreaus in 2005, could be a problem if McCain continues to insist the General is exclusively part of his new plan. Given Petraeus' popularity, it would indeed be a shame if he became part of McCain's Iraq problem.
And, as we said, it doesn't have to be this way.
In his "Anbar" interview with Katie Couric, McCain said something that has gotten completely lost in the "chicken and egg" sniping over the surge. He said, "We will come home in victory." Now that should be what everyone is talking about. That is the theme to hammer. It's positive, and puts McCain on the offensive rather than the defensive at a moment when he can still seize the initiative in this race. Let the other stuff go.
We think American voters are more likely to embrace victory—to embrace a winner—than to thread these dubious needles of shifting blame and responsibility. Leave the triangulating to Obama. Tergiversation is his forte. But victory is something to be celebrated, not parsed. McCain can come out and say "We Won! They Lost!" and declare victory over al Qaeda—and then tie this to our hopes for free allies and trading partners in strategic locations, our need for allies that produce abundant hydrocarbons while we pursue energy independence, and, most of all, our hopes for another seven years free from terrorist attacks on the US. It's a much more attractive message than "I was Right and Everyone Else was Wrong." At the end of the week McCain again made headlines when he announced he would rather lose an election and win a war. We reject this defeatist rhetoric. How about saying he wants to win a war and an election?