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The Coming Together Of McCain And Obama On Iraq

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As we enter the long summer days of the general election, the tradition in American politics is for the candidates to run as hard as they can to the vaunted "middle of the road." What this may mean is that by Election Day, the foreign policy positions on Iraq of John McCain and Barack Obama are going to get a lot closer and indeed may be different mainly in philosophy (rather than in substance) by November.

This is a shocking claim to make, but I think events will bear me out. I think either candidates' plan, by the end of the campaign, will merge toward a consensus: "We're going to leave Iraq as fast as events on the ground make it possible, while still leaving some troops behind."

The philosophical differences will be whether the ultimate goal of our withdrawal is to get our troops out as fast as is realistically possible (Obama) or whether we have achieved some nebulously-defined "victory" (McCain). There may be substantial differences over how many troops will remain behind and what their mission will be, but I don't expect either candidate to get painted into the corner of "we will leave X number of troops behind." Look for vagueness rather than a target number, in other words, from both of them. So the one concrete difference between their plans will not be addressed at all, except in philosophical terms.

Those philosophical differences do matter. I am not saying in any way that it won't matter who gets elected. But Barack Obama is going to come home from visiting Iraq (which he's going to do very soon) and he is going to announce his new thinking on Iraq. This is not a bad thing, as he has always conditioned his responses with some form of "as the situation on the ground allows." I think that, after eight years of George Bush, it is a good thing indeed that a president take a look at the situation on the ground and change his plans accordingly. Why should Obama be forced into conforming in every single detail with what he said about Iraq a year ago? That wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, although I fully expect the media to have an "Obama Flip Flops!!" field day when it happens. The hard anti-war sector of the voting public may not agree with Obama's nuance on the issue, but Obama will continue to stress, as he always has, that he is setting the goal of getting most combat troops out in a year and a half. This may help him contain some damage politically, but again, we'll see how the media plays it.

John McCain's problems are that his philosophical stance and outlook on Iraq are built on two big contradictions. The first is his rage against "timetables for withdrawal," and the second is "how is Iraq doing now?" Although the media has not addressed either of these yet (and probably won't, since they seem reluctant to address any McCain inconsistencies so far), eventually Obama will have the chance to point these examples of doublethink out when debating McCain. Let's take them one at a time.

John McCain is against "timetables for withdrawal." He thinks such timetables are a really bad idea, because they (somehow) are "surrendering" to the enemy. He also thinks they're a bad idea because the enemy will just sit back, bide their time, and then take over Iraq thirty seconds after we leave. McCain has not been shy about stating what a horrendously naive concept timetables for withdrawal are, and the absolute disaster that would ensue if such became U.S. policy in Iraq.

Except that before McCain was against timetables, he was for them.

McCain has built his entire rationale for why he would take care of Iraq better than Obama on the fact that he "opposed Bush" (he really didn't) on the war strategy, and that the "surge" was proof of George W. Bush's genius and really turned everything around. Except for the elephant in the middle of the room: the "surge" -- from its very announcement -- operated on a timetable for withdrawal. We are indeed at the end of that timetable, as the last "surge" soldiers are due to come home this month (except for the 10,000 or so we're leaving behind, which don't get mentioned very often). The "surge" is almost over, in other words -- on the timetable for withdrawal it had from the get-go. So how can this be a bad thing and a good thing at the same time? If we had real journalists covering the campaign trail, somebody would have asked McCain this question by now, but you go to an election with the journalists you've got (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld).

The second example of McCain's doublethink is even more glaring, but again, it has elicited nothing but a profound silence from the press. McCain warns of dire consequences if Obama becomes president and withdraws our troops on the dreaded timetable he's announced. McCain basically says the entire country is going to immediately fall apart, and that Al Qaeda and Iran are going to get all the money from Iraq's oil as a result. Um, OK, but then (sometimes in the next sentence), McCain praises the progress we've made in Iraq. In particular, the Iraqi Army. According to McCain, the Iraqi armed forces are doing such a bang-up job protecting Iraq's security that the American "surge" soldiers can now safely come home (on that pesky timetable).

You can't have it both ways, unless your name is John McCain, apparently.

Either Iraq is going to collapse into anarchy the minute we leave, or the Iraqis are getting their military act together and are almost ready to provide security on their own. The two are really mutually exclusive. But again, this glaring contradiction in the perception of the current situation in Iraq is never talked about. Media types are able to hold two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time (Orwell's definition of "doublethink"), and are not bothered by the glaring disparity in the slightest. Again, Obama will have to be the one to point this out, possibly on live television in a debate. This may awaken the media from their somnolence... and then again, it may not.

McCain has a way out of this second conundrum, though. He may, before the actual election, declare "victory" and say it's now safe enough for us to get out. This will put him a lot closer to Obama's position that withdrawing a few thousand soldiers a month is not "precipitous withdrawal" or "surrender" or all the other horrendous terms Republicans (and way too many members of the media, who should know better) have been using to describe the Democratic position. We can safely withdraw that many, McCain will state, because General Petraeus now says it is a prudent thing to do, and because the "surge" has produced so much "victory" that it is now feasible to do so, but only because George Bush is a genius and the "surge" was so brilliant an idea in the first place.

In other words, John McCain will come a lot closer to the Democratic position, although the way he talks about it will be different. He will say (over and over again) that to call for such a withdrawal a year or more ago (as Obama did) was "reckless, naive, and inexperienced," whereas -- now that the "generals on the ground" have agreed with it -- it is now the sober, clear-eyed, and experienced thing to do.

But when you strip away all the talk of "victory" and "timetables," John McCain's plan is most likely going to wind up being pretty close to Barack Obama's plan. McCain knows that the electorate wants America out of Iraq, even faster than Obama has proposed. McCain also knows that his ties to Bush's foreign policy are an albatross around his neck. But if Bush's policies are shown -- just before the election -- to be a stunning "success" and "victory," then he may win back some votes he otherwise would have lost.

So look for a lot of hyperventilating and spin on steroids during the closing months of the campaign. But also note that with Obama hedging his bets on "events on the ground" (which he will do, right after he visits Iraq) and McCain forced to declare "victory" and now support getting out, their Iraq plans are going to look more similar than different. Maybe it's an inevitability of candidates "running to the middle" or maybe events on the ground will have forced both candidates to slightly alter their positions. Either way, both of them may wind up being, if not on the same team, at least in the same ballpark on Iraq. Which means Iraq may not be as big an issue as expected in this election.


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