The presidential candidates vs. Iraq
Now that it appears the presidential race will be between Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, it seemed only fitting to begin comparing their stands on key military issues. Yes, many have done this already, but a lot has changed in Iraq since Barack “Pull our troops out quickly” Obama and John “Stay for One Hundred Years” McCain emerged.
Violence has dropped substantially, both against U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts. Civilian deaths are down. By all accounts, al Qaida is weaker as are the militias. Even at the Pentagon, there is more optimism; leaders there are increasingly shifting their rhetoric away from Iraq and toward the growing problems on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
And yet, despite all this, few are convinced the progress will last. Iraqi politicians still have not reconciled (whatever that means) enough to reassure the Iraqis or the Americans that they can keep this downward trend going. Indeed, they had to delay the all-important provincial elections this fall by at least a month.
But the candidates’ websites and recent speeches don’t reflect the mosaic of issues. Instead, they describe policies that appear to be for the Iraq that existed months ago. On his website Obama promises include removing two combat brigades a month to rid Iraq of most U.S. forces in 16 months. And “if al Qaida attempts to build a base within Iraq, [Obama] will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda.”
But if things continue on this track, Pentagon officials think they could expedite troop withdrawals, which I wrote about last week. That is, it could take far less than 16 months to move out all the brigades, depending on how many are left in January 2009 (and now there may be a better way than moving two brigades a month). And if Iraqis are rejecting al Qaida, as it increasingly appears, it may be far less likely that they can build bases there. There may be no need to station troops nearby.
Over on McCain’s site, he writes that Iraqi leaders have met four of the six laws cited as benchmarks. Huh? Is anyone still talking about benchmarks? (Just the word “benchmark” makes me think back to last summer.) And he pays tribute to the Sons of Iraq, residents hired in largely Sunni areas to serve as guards for their communities. But since then, a more authoritative force, the Iraqi Army has begun taking the lead in parts of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, Iraq’s three biggest cities. Such an accomplishment would bolster McCain's decision to support the surge, but it’s not on the site. His statistics only go back as far as March.
Iraq is constantly changing, and it seems to me that those running for president should keep up with those changes as they enter the general election. The Iraq they talk about in the months ahead will likely be very different from the one the next president will ultimately inherit. Iraq gets more complicated with each passing day. Now is as good a time as any for Obama and McCain to adjust accordingly.