“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

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

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.