Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obama and McCain's Brass Tacks on Iraq

On July 15, Barack Obama and John McCain gave dueling speeches on Iraq that greatly clarified the issue of the war for the election.

The argument between Obama and McCain boils down to a simple choice concerning what's the most important thing to consider. For Obama, it's "what should we do in Iraq in the future;" and for McCain, "who was right about the surge."

Whoever wins the debate on "what's important" will win the debate on Iraq and more likely than not win the election.

In my opinion, Obama has a much better argument. But that doesn't mean he'll win the debate. In fact, McCain has certain advantages that will make the argument hard for Obama to win.

John McCain's view doesn't make sense at first. Why does he insist in talking about the surge rather than what he would do as president? McCain wants to frame the issue in terms of "the surge" because he was an early advocate of increasing American troops by 30,000 in Iraq and because the surge has been a relative success. In this context, McCain claims that he can be trusted to be right about everything connected with Iraq because he was right about the surge. For his part, Obama opposed the surge and predicted its failure (bias alert: I didn't think the surge would succeed either). Thus, McCain has a real advantage if he can convince voters to accept the idea that "who was right on the surge" is the most important issue.

There's also a subtext here. McCain also wants us to focus on the surge is because he's reluctant to say exactly what he wants to accomplish in Iraq. The only way to coherently think about McCain's ultimate goals for Iraq is to think of him as a neo-conservative and he certainly has agreed with the neo-conservatives about the war. What defines the neo-conservative position have been the goals of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, establishing Iraq as a "stable democracy," and making Iraq into an ally in the war on terror. What is meant by Iraq being an ally in the war on terror is that Iraq would be a client state of the United States and that Iraq would (gladly) allow American troops to be stationed on its soil for the purpose of intimidating other Arab nations, supporting Israel, and maintaining a permanent state of confrontation with Iran.

Given the steadfast opposition of the Iraqi government and population to this kind of permanent American occupation, the whole neo-conservative idea is a pipe dream. It's difficult to tell how much McCain shares in that pipe dream, but he wants a large-scale American military presence in Iraq at a time when the Iraqi government is more stable. One can only assume that he wants the U. S. military to pursue "other American interests" as conservatives define those interests. This is what Obama thinks McCain is angling at as well when Obama rejects the idea of "permanent American bases in Iraq."

However, McCain has a good chance of selling his emphasis on the surge enough to make it an advantage for him. He has at several advantages. Most importantly, one can view "support for the surge" as the most important issue in Iraq without independently evaluating the competing claims and complexities of military and political conditions there. Thus, accepting McCain's argument makes decision-making easier and more efficient. Likewise, the whole conservative media establishment and 20-25% of the electorate was enthusiastic in their support of the surge. McCain's emphasis on the surge has the advantage of building on the enthusiasm of a passionate part of the American political scene. Finally, McCain's a relatively popular and trusted figure even among Democrats. That makes the argument easier for undecided voters to empathize with or accept, even for those who have mildly opposed the war.

Ironically, accepting Obama's argument might be a bigger leap of faith for undecided voters even though it's a simpler argument that coheres well with the facts. Obama's argument is that the relative success of the surge has made it possible for the U. S. to withdraw most of its troops within 16 months after his inauguration. It's simple, elegant, and conforms to accepted facts about the progress of the surge. However, Obama has a problem in that accepting Obama's argument about the future requires undecided voters to make their own judgements about future conditions in Iraq and thus puts more of a burden on voters.

The state of public opinion is a disadvantage for Obama in other ways. A large percentage of the moderate and independent vote is opposed to the war, but much of that opinion is fairly soft, uncertain, and uninformed. All McCain has to do is make undecided voters uncertain about their opposition to continued occupation for him to succeed. Obama has the more difficult task of convincing those same voters that withdrawing troops actually will work.

Finally, Obama is not nearly as familiar to the public as McCain and constant questioning and criticism has chipped away at Obama's veneer of charisma. As a result, Obama's not as automatically believable as McCain even when McCain is dissembling or hiding his opinions.

As a result, Obama has to be much more effective at promoting his ideas than John McCain if Obama hopes to win the debate on Iraq and probably if he hopes to win the election at all.

That's the hand Obama's been dealt. Now he has to play it.

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