Quick Thoughts on Obama, McCain, and Iraq

While reading a post on the coming Republican collapse, I thought

(1) some kind of drawdown will happen, and McCain and Obama are in fact saying something strikingly similar: troop withdrawals will be condition-based. The rap on McCain has been, “Look, it’s important that we have a president who is at least committed to the idea that we should get the hell out of Iraq.” And I understand this logic. But of course McCain is committed to this idea, something his detractors have noted — he has explicitly said that Iraq’s cultural context means that we won’t have the same relationship with Iraq that we’ve had with Germany and Japan, but that some neighbor of U.S. troops will likely remain to provide minority communities with reassurance and to help a fledgling Iraqi state defend itself. Not an insane notion. As former Obama senior advisor Samantha Power has noted, Obama’s withdrawal timetable is based on a best case scenario. He will also pay attention to conditions on the ground. Someone like Colin Kahl will see to that. I want McCain to win. For the moment, I’m not panicked about the prospect of Obama winning.

(2) Why? Because the post-midterm shift in President Bush’s Iraq strategy means that the Iraqis have a fighting chance. I opposed Bush’s reelection in 2004, when I essentially became a single issue Iraq voter. Despite myself, I think I’m still a single issue Iraq voter, which is why I favor McCain. I fully expect the Bush legacy to be a massive Republican meltdown, resulting in huge losses in Congress and perhaps even in the states. Yet I’m grateful all the same — and Democrats should be too — that Bush has helped radically change the Iraq landscape. I realize that Democrats will find this ridiculous, if not offensive. Surely withdrawal would have worked equally well in December 2006! I find this idea utterly ridiculous: given the state of the ISF and the Iraqi political scene at the time, it would’ve been very ugly. But of course these are counterfactuals, and we can’t realistically expect to change minds on this subject. I changed my mind, but I change my mind about as often as I tie my shoes. So while I agree with Ross that historians should tread lightly when reassessing Bush in the years to come, he has exceeded my low expectations.

(3) Let me emphasize how strange it is that we will likely have an election in which, from my perspective, we have the prospect of two decent outcomes. There is an asymmetry here. I believe we have two decent presidential prospects. MoveOn.org, which has launched a hilarious campaign to muddy the clear distinctions between Bush and McCain, disagrees with me. This intensity gap is obviously a problem for Republicans. McCain has failed to give millions of soft Republicans a burning reason to support him over Obama. Yuval Levin has some very astute thoughts on how to change that, which I hope to discuss soon.

(4) A final observation — if McCain and Obama are saying the same thing about Iraq substantively, note that Obama is emphasizing the popular part of the message: not making strategic judgments based on conditions on the ground, not aiding Iraq, but rather getting out as quickly as possible. McCain, who also wants to get out quickly, is emphasizing our obligations and improving the security environment. If I were Obama, I suppose I would do the same thing. This is a reminder, however, that McCain is cut from sterner stuff. Whether that is a good thing is not obvious. We live in a therapeutic age, and I personally resent McCain’s anti-UFC mania. Obama, a smart, contradictory person, really is more in tune with our times. We don’t need to be dishonest about our disagreements to have disagreements.