In a post before the presidential debate last week, I wrote about five key thingsthat veterans would be watching for in the debate. And, most of those questions were actually addressed, which was great. But two issues remain very much unresolved. It's my hope that there's a deeper examination of these issues tonight.
To repeat my questions, the first was:
1) Will the candidates (and the moderator) note the difference between "tactical" success of the surge, versus the overall strategic goal of the surge, and whether that was a success?
There was an area of disagreement between Senators Obama and McCain on the surge, with McCain using the occasion to say that Senator Obama "didn't understand." In fact, it was McCain who didn't understand.
Senator Obama was correct in saying that the surge - in the form it took - was a tactical move. What everyone expected the surge to be was a complete strategy; an intense build-up of the three legs of our efforts in Iraq - political, diplomatic, and military. The surge of troops was supposed to give the breathing space for intense diplomatic and political work to bring Iraq together, and working as a unified nation.
What ended up happening is that we employed only one of those tactics, the surge of troops. And, while that's had the tactical success it was supposed to have, there's been no real strategic success, because we failed to take part in intense shuttle diplomacy in the region, or do the tough political work to help Iraqis resolve their internal problems.
In the Vice Presidential debate, I would very much hope that Gwen Ifill would revisit this unresolved dispute between the campaigns, and ask the Vice Presidential candidates to discuss it further. It's absolutely critical for troops that we know the next President understands what the surge "strategy" was supposed to be, and why the "surge of troops" tactic hasn't brought about the strategic goal we had hoped for.
My second question was:
2) Will the candidates be challenged on the deteriorating situation with Pakistan? Will Obama hold to his position that we must act to strike terrorists officially inside Pakistan's borders, and will McCain hold to his view that Obama is wrong to strike in the ungoverned parts of Pakistan without the expressed consent from Islamabad?
This is one of those weird areas where a Vice Presidential candidate seems to disagree with the top of the ticket. John McCain continued to rip into Barack Obama for his stance that he would move on actionable intelligence to strike at top al Qaeda targets in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, if the Pakistanis wouldn't. McCain disingenuously painted this as Obama saying he would attack Pakistan.
That's just a gross distortion. The lawless region in the upper west portion of Pakistan is a haven for terrorists, and an area that Pakistan never has controlled. The only time this area is really Pakistan is on a map. Otherwise, it's a land without a nation, or rule of law, which terrorists have successfully squatted. Even then, Senator Obama wasn't talking about carpet bombing the area, but OKing surgical strikes to take out al Qaeda leadership in that lawless area. It's very different than saber-rattling against Iran - when McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman directly threaten to attack a nation. Or, when Governor Palin hinted at a hypothetical war with the nation of Russia.
A couple days later, Governor Palin seemed to back up Barack Obama on Pakistan, telling a voter that we would do whatever it takes to go after al Qaeda, including crossing over into the borders of Pakistan. While not McCain's position, Palin was actually correct in the way she answered the question.
A couple days after that, in an interview that was chaperoned by Senator McCain, Governor Palin walked away from that position, and engaged in further distortion, claiming Senator Obama wanted to let terrorists know when and where we would strike them.
Now, it's no shock that Governor Palin (and John McCain) are making the same arguments that those in the Democratic primary made against Obama when he originally stated his policy. Joe Biden even made a similar argument at the time. However, as with the war in Iraq, Senator Obama was quite prescient. The situation has changed since the primary. Pakistan has become much less a partner in getting al Qaeda, and has shown no interest in allowing the U.S. to operate in the border region. In fact, they're firing on our troops when we try to go after terrorists. That's why even the Bush White House has come to the Obama position.
Secondly, the McCain-Palin argument is, in fact, a softening of his own past position. During the primary and well into this year, Senator McCain said that he wouldn't act inside Pakistan, without their consent. Now he's not saying he wouldn't, just that he won't say it out loud. So, McCain is actually closer to the Obama position now. I presume by election day, Senator McCain will start saying that he'd approve strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan, as well.
If this is all very confusing, that's the point - the McCain campaign is looking to muddle the issue for the voters. But both of these issues - strategy versus tactic, and when we would strike al Qaeda - are issues where troops need absolute clarity from our future commander in chief, or commander in chief in waiting.
For the troops and vets, I'm hoping that Gwen Ifill doesn't let these unresolved issues slide, tonight.