POLITICS

WaPo's Gerson Tangles Obama, McCain In False Narrative

04/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Gerson begins his latest piece for the Washington Post by saying, "It is a political error for a candidate to believe that voters who agree with him will always end up supporting him." He ends it by saying, "Young Obama's strongest arguments are focused on the failures of the past. The older man [McCain], by insisting on victory, is more responsible and realistic about the future." In between is a bunch of stuff that fails to prove either thesis.

It's so simple to see what Gerson's attempting to do here that one can hardly blame him for trying. Clearly, Gerson is an advocate of the current strategy in Iraq - he is, after all, the man behind (or one of them) the term "axis of evil" - and he would clearly prefer that the ongoing strategy continue under a McCain presidency. He'd also dearly love to make some hay with Obama's recent declaration that "foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain."

I'm not exactly sure where it is that Gerson believes he has adequately proven that voters, who "generally feel that the initial use of military force in Iraq was a mistake" will somehow switch allegiances at some point in the future and side with McCain's antithetical policies. They could, I suppose, for a number of different reasons. I'm not sure that any of the ones Gerson cites - Obama's votes against funding the war, advocating for a withdrawal, and engaging in a "surge" of diplomacy - are going to be the ones to do it, especially considering that voter demand for these policies were behind the Democrats' taking over the Senate in the first place.

Additionally, Gerson asserts that Obama, even with his "advantages on domestic policy" is in need of seeming "more commander-in-chief-like." McCain, he says, is tied to Iraq, which would be a bad thing, but for the way Gerson spins that albatross:

Maliki's uncoordinated attack on the Shiite militias in Basra seems to indicate that while the Iraqi spirit is willing, the flesh remains weak. But the failure of the Shiite uprising to spread more broadly shows that the extremists may be weaker than in the past. And, as Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute points out, Moqtada al-Sadr was forced to cave in at the end. "By going after al-Sadr," he says, "Maliki forced the Iraqi political parties to take sides, and every single one sided with him [Maliki]."

Naturally, a gentle breeze blows down this house of cards: the Iraqi tendency to abandon their posts in times of trouble indicates their "spirit" isn't all it's cracked up to be, the "Shiite uprising" is actually a Sadrist uprising that Sadr controlled and dictated terms throughout, and it hardly matters what ineffectual Maliki factota sided with him against Sadr in the end, when, in truth, the American forces had to save Maliki's bacon, and the endgame was a win for Sadr, negotiated by Iranians.

If this is the hand McCain is going to hold, then I favor Obama. The failures of today are founded on the fundamental strategic blunder that began the Iraq miasma. McCain's like a poor chef, insisting that his experience with the spice rack will render rancid meat digestible. Voters might buy Gerson's spin - but right now, I favor the odds of them understanding that McCain's experience doesn't mean a lick if he's only going to put it to the service of a continuing failure.

As far as this other argument, that Obama is too bound by the past and that only John McCain has got a clear vision of the future, I must declare: Balderdash. And one need only examine Obama's testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to see that the candidate is primarily focused on both present conditions and the road ahead.

Obama began by pinning Petraeus down on a statement on the current strategy toward al Qaeda in Iraq, and what the hoped for, future outcome would look like:

SENATOR OBAMA: OK. I just want to be clear if I'm understanding. We don't anticipate that there's never going to be some individual or group of individuals in Iraq that might have sympathies toward Al Qaida. Our goal is not to hunt down and eliminate every single trace, but rather to create a manageable situation where they're not posing a threat to Iraq or using it as a base to launch attacks outside of Iraq. Is that accurate?

GENERAL PETRAEUS: That is exactly right.

I'd say we're off to a good start. Obama continued, seeking similar answers on Iran.

SENATOR OBAMA:Do we feel confident that the Iraqi government is directing these -- this aid to these special groups?

Do we feel confident about that, or do we think that they're just tacitly tolerating it? Do you have some sense of that?

CROCKER: There's no question in our minds that the Iranian government, and in particular the Quds Force, is -- this is a conscious, carefully worked-out policy.

SENATOR OBAMA:If that's the case, can you respond a little more fully to Senator Boxer's point? If, in fact, it is known -- and I'm assuming you've shared that information with the Maliki government -- that Iran's government has assisted in arming special groups that are doing harm to Iraqi security forces and undermining the Iraqi government, why is it that they're being welcomed the way they were?

AMBASSADOR CROCKER: Well, we don't need to, again, tell the prime minister that. He knows it.

SENATOR OBAMA:OK.

AMBASSADOR CROCKER: And is trying to take some steps to tighten up significantly on the border. In terms of the Ahmadinejad visit, you know, Iran and Iraq are neighbors. A visit like that should be in the category of a normal relationship.

SENATOR OBAMA:OK.

Again, Obama is quite clearly attempting to get a statement on the record that speaks to what Petraeus - and by extension Bush - feels the future of Iraq should look like. In this case: it is assumed that Iraq and Iran will always be allowed to have some sort of relationship.

Gerson focuses on the fact that Obama believes "that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder," and "that the two problems that you've pointed out -- Al Qaida in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region -- are a direct result of that original decision" as an example of him being stuck in the past. But how can one have a future if one cannot learn from the mistakes of the past? Obama is building to this point in the Petraeus hearing. And from the moment he asks Biden for extra time, to the end of his remarks, Obama is, at every turn, focused on getting a clear view of current conditions, with an eye toward advocating a future plan.

You can look it up for yourself, but let's focus specifically on how Obama sums up his line of inquiry:

AMBASSADOR CROCKER: Senator, I can't imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.

SENATOR BIDEN: That wasn't the question.

SENATOR OBAMA: No, no, that wasn't the question. I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I'm trying to get to an endpoint. That's what all of us have been trying to get to.

And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

And that's the whole shooting match, right there. It is actually the Bush administration that cannot divine or describe how they intend to push forward to their hoped for future. They refuse to force the Maliki government to hew to benchmarks, refuse to accept a timetable of deliverables and deadlines, and refuse to offer any insight into whether they are prepared to change strategies in the event of a downturn in conditions. The plan they had was ably superceded in Basra, and they do not have a plan going forward, other than to continue, planlessly into the future, gauging and assessing the events on the ground even as they concede that ground to every other actor in the region.

That is precisely the path that John McCain wants to follow, and it hardly bespeaks some great vision of the future! McCain talks a good game about how Bush mishandled the war, but now that we're following McCain's plan, everything is going in the right direction. Gerson somehow believes that this entails an "insistence on victory," but, again...spice rack...rancid meat: new strategy can't alter a bad idea unless you concede the idea was bad in the first place. Far from a path to future "victory", McCain is actually the one who's thrown in his lot with the failures of the past. Maybe the voters will line up behind that, but that won't change the fact that McCain's future is a path that leads nowhere.

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