Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
The only problem is that no news from Iraq isn’t good news — it’s no news. The night of the Baghdad bombing the CBS war correspondent Lara Logan appeared as Jon Stewart’s guest on “The Daily Show” to lament the vanishing television coverage and the even steeper falloff in viewer interest. “Tell me the last time you saw the body of a dead American soldier,” she said. After pointing out that more soldiers died in Afghanistan than Iraq last month, she asked, “Who’s paying attention to that?”
Her question was rhetorical, but there is an answer: Virtually no one. If you follow the nation’s op-ed pages and the presidential campaign, Iraq seems as contentious an issue as Vietnam was in 1968. But in the country itself, Cindy vs. Michelle, not Shiites vs. Sunnis, is the hotter battle. This isn’t the press’s fault, and it isn’t the public’s fault. It’s merely the way things are.
In America, the war has been a settled issue since early 2007. No matter what has happened in Iraq since then, no matter what anyone on any side of the Iraq debate has had to say about it, polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans judge the war a mistake and want out. For that majority, the war is over except for finalizing the withdrawal details. They’ve moved on without waiting for the results of Election Day 2008 or sampling the latest hectoring ad from moveon.org.
Perhaps if Americans had been asked for shared sacrifice at the war’s inception, including a draft, they would be in 1968-ish turmoil now. But they weren’t, and they aren’t. In 2008, the Vietnam analogy doesn’t hold. The center does.
The good news for Democrats — and the big opportunity for Barack Obama — is that John McCain and the war’s last cheerleaders don’t recognize that immutable reality. They’re so barricaded in their own Vietnam bunker that they think the country is too. It’s their constant and often shrill refrain that if only those peacenik McGovern Democrats and the “liberal media” acknowledged that violence is down in Iraq — as indeed it is, substantially — voters will want to press on to “victory” and not “surrender.” And therefore go for Mr. McCain.
One neocon pundit, Charles Krauthammer, summed up this alternative-reality mind-set in a recent column piously commanding Mr. McCain to “make the election about Iraq” because “everything is changed,” and “we are winning on every front.” The war, he wrote, can be “the central winning plank of his campaign.” (Italics his.)
This hyperventilating wasn’t necessary, because this is what Mr. McCain is already trying to do. His first general election ad, boosted by a large media buy in swing states this month, was all about war. It invoked his Vietnam heroism and tried to have it both ways on Iraq by at once presenting Mr. McCain as a stay-the-course warrior and taking a (timid) swipe at President Bush. “Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war,” Mr. McCain said in his voice-over. That unnamed fool would be our cowboy president, who in March told American troops how he envied their “in some ways romantic” task of “confronting danger.”
But reminding voters of his identification with Iraq, no matter how he spins it, pays no political dividends to Mr. McCain. People just don’t want to hear about it. Last week, the first polls conducted in Pennsylvania and Ohio since the ad began running there found him well behind in both states.
The G.O.P.’s badgering of Mr. Obama about the war is also backfiring. In sync with Mr. McCain, the Republican National Committee unveiled an online clock — “Track How Long Since Obama Was in Iraq!” — only to have Mr. Obama call the bluff by announcing that he will go to both Afghanistan and Iraq before the election. Unless he takes along his own Lieberman-like Jiminy Cricket to whisper factual corrections into his ear, this trip is likely to enhance his stature as a potential commander in chief.
The other whiny line of G.O.P.-McCain attack is to demand incessantly that Mr. Obama stop refusing to recognize the decline in violence in Iraq, stop calling for a hasty troop withdrawal and stop ignoring commanders on the ground in assessing his exit strategy. Here, too, Mr. Obama is calling their bluff, though not nearly as loudly as he will, I suspect, in the debates.
The fact is that Mr. Obama frequently recognizes “the reduction of violence in Iraq” (his words) and has said he is “encouraged” by it. He has never said that he would refuse to consult with commanders on the ground, and he has never called for a precipitous withdrawal. His mantra on Iraq, to the point of tedium, has always been that “we must be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” His roughly 16-month timetable isn’t hasty and isn’t “retreat.” As The Economist, a supporter of the war, recently put it, a safer Iraq does not necessarily validate Mr. McCain’s “insistence on America staying indefinitely” and might make Mr. Obama’s 16-month framework “more feasible.”
After all, the point of the surge, as laid out by Mr. Bush, was to buy time for political reconciliation among the Iraqis. The results have been at best spotty, and even the crucial de-Baathification law celebrated by Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain in January remains inoperative. Mr. Obama’s timetable is at least an effort to use any remaining American leverage to concentrate the Iraqi leaders’ thinking. Mr. McCain offers only the status quo: a blank check holding America hostage to fate and ceding the president’s civilian authority over war policy to Gen. David Petraeus and his successors.
Should voters tune in, they’ll also discover that the McCain policy is nonsensical on its face. If “we are winning” and the surge is a “success,” then what is the rationale for keeping American forces bogged down there while the Taliban regroups ominously in Afghanistan? Why, if this is victory, does Mr. McCain keep threatening that “chaos and genocide” will follow our departure? And why should we take the word of a prophet who failed to anticipate the chaos and ethnic cleansing that would greet our occupation?
And exactly how, as Mr. McCain keeps claiming, is an indefinite American occupation akin to our long-term military role in South Korea? The diminution of violence notwithstanding, Iraq is an active war zone. And unlike South Korea, it isn’t asking America to remain to protect it from a threatening neighbor. Iraq’s most malevolent neighbor, Iran, is arguably Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s closest ally. In the most recent survey, in February, only 27 percent of Iraqis said the American presence is improving their country’s security. Far from begging us to stay, some Iraqi politicians, including Mr. Maliki, have been pandering to their own election-year voters by threatening to throw the Yankees out.
Mr. McCain’s sorest Achilles’ heel, of course, is his role in facilitating the fiasco in the first place. Someone in his campaign has figured this out. Go to JohnMcCain.com and, hilariously enough, you’ll find a “McCain on Iraq Timeline” that conveniently begins in August 2003, months after “Mission Accomplished.” Vanished into the memory hole are such earlier examples of the McCain Iraq wisdom as “the end is very much in sight” (April 9, 2003) and “there’s not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shiites” (later that same month).
To finesse this embarrassing record, Mr. McCain asks us to believe that the only judgment that matters is who was “right” about the surge, not who was right about our reckless plunge into war. That’s like saying he deserves credit for tossing life preservers to the survivors after encouraging the captain of the Titanic to plow full speed ahead into the iceberg.
But as Lara Logan asked, who’s paying attention to any of this Iraq stuff anyway? That Mr. McCain makes an unpopular and half-forgotten war the centerpiece of his campaign may simply be a default posture — the legacy of his Vietnam service and a recognition that any war, good or bad, is still a stronger suit for him than delving into the details of health care, education, tax policy or the mortgage crisis.
Even so, it leaves him trapped in a Catch-22. If violence continues to subside in Iraq — if, as Mr. McCain has it, we keep “winning” — it will only call more attention to the internal contradictions of a policy that says success in Iraq should be punished by forcing American troops to stay there indefinitely. And if Iraq reignites, well, so much for “winning.”
Not that the Obama policy is foolproof either. As everyone knows, there are no good options in Iraq. Our best hope for a bipartisan resolution of this disaster may be for a President Obama to appoint Mr. McCain as a special envoy to Baghdad, where he can stay for as long as he needs to administer our withdrawal or 100 years, whichever comes first.