No, Barack Obama didn't lose the war in Iraq. He was right, and he's still right, to call for a reduction of troops and a withdrawal. What he lost was the war about the war: the war of media opinion. Admittedly, he was in a difficult position. The media have been repeatedly misleading the American people about the surge in Iraq, giving it sole credit for a reduction in killings (and failing to point out the still intolerable levels of violence in Iraq).
According to Bob Woodward's new book, the surge didn't cause the decline in violence in Iraq by itself:
Overall, Woodward writes, four factors combined to reduce the violence: the covert operations; the influx of troops; the agreement by militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to rein in his powerful Mahdi Army; and the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and allied with U.S. forces.
According to Woodward, "85 to 90 percent of the successful operations and 'actionable intelligence' had come from" the change in techniques, not the expansion of troops.
Even Gen. David Petraeus (hardly an objective source as Bush's handpicked man in Iraq) admits that the surge did not bring victory: "Petraeus is careful not to credit all the progress to the surge of U.S. troops in 2007." According to Newsweek, "Would the Sunni Awakening have succeeded without the surge? Possibly, he concedes."
In fact, it's more than possible, since the Sunni Awakening began before the surge ever started, a fact that McCain was wrong about in the interview last month that CBS distorted to protect McCain.
So Obama was completely right when he declared back in 2007:
My assessment is that if we put additional 30,000 of our outstanding troops into Baghdad that that's going to quell some of the violence in the short term. I don't think that there's any doubt that as long as U.S. troops are present that they are going to be doing outstanding work. It doesn't change the underlying assessment that there's not a military solution to the situation in Iraq. The underlying political dynamic has not changed.
As Obama correctly predicted, the surge had a small effect in stabilizing Baghdad. But an increase in troops by itself wouldn't change anything in Iraq. And that's exactly what happened.
But Obama has allowed the pro-war spin machine to overwhelm him. Obama's big mistake was admitting that he was wrong when he wasn't, declaring on Bill O'Reilly's show last week that "the surge succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams." Even though reports about this line distorted Obama's meaning, it was still an incredibly stupid thing to say. Sarah Palin promptly slammed Obama: "I guess when you turn out to be profoundly wrong on a vital national security issue, maybe it's comforting to pretend that everyone else was wrong, too."
The interview reflected Obama's worst tendency (which is also tied to one of his best attributes): his willingness to listen to conservatives and empathize with them. Obama was anxious to be liked by O'Reilly and his viewers, and so he decided to give up completely on opposing the surge and told O'Reilly what he wanted to hear.
It's the worst mistake Obama has made yet in this campaign. Obama could have defused McCain's attacks by making a simple argument: that even without the surge, this improvement in military tactics, the Sunni Awakening, and the Al-Sadr brigade truce would have also dramatically decreased violence in Iraq. In fact, Obama could have argued that if his plan for withdrawal had been implemented earlier, it would have caused this reduction in violence to take place well before 2007. Why? The reduction in troops would have forced the US military to change its tactics and improve them; and it would have forced the Iraqis to undertake the political deals that led to the reduction in violence in Iraq. Can anyone be certain of this? No, but that's precisely why it's such a powerful argument: McCain can't dismiss Obama's hypothetical policy because we'll never know what might have happened.
It's baffling as to why Obama's campaign has failed to make this simple point. Perhaps there are simply too many of the pro-war Democrats advising his campaign right now, the traditional Democratic consultants who are terrified of Democrats appearing "weak" by opposing war.
Unfortunately, Obama gave up the argument completely. It was a weakness that the McCain will exploit in the next two months.
It's time for Obama to reverse himself, to declare that he made a verbal mistake in the O'Reilly interview by using the word "surge" to mean the entirety of US military and strategic policies in Iraq, and to point out that the achievements could have been made (and probably would have been made sooner) by decreasing US troops in Iraq. Obama can also point out the fact that the information in Woodward's book wasn't available to him for that interview, and it indicates that Obama was right all along.
Obama needs to reject the theory that the surge worked, right now, or he may lose this campaign.