Perhaps John McCain’s biggest strength this election has been his advocacy of the surge in Iraq. McCain’s story is now that the surge had never happened we would have “lost in Iraq.” Furthermore, McCain claims that Obama has been denying the success of the surge.
“Our troops will come home with honor. And we won’t be defeated. And there won’t be chaos in the region. There won’t be increased Iranian influence in the region. And it will have a bearing on what happens in Afghanistan, as well as the entire region of the world. And I’m proud of what they’ve done. And to deny their success — I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened. The American people will make a judgment.”
McCain has also extended that argument and explicitly argued that “I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”
The second attack is just crazy. It’s basically arguing that Obama is a traitor who is only interested in political power, but beyond the sheer ugliness of it, it is just wrong. Obama did argue for a different strategy in Iraq in early 2007. But so did a lot of other people. To say Obama wanted to lose the war is basically to say that people like James Baker, Jim Hamilton, Lawrence Eagleburger, William Perry and the rest of the Iraq Study Group all wanted to lose. It’s just not a credible story.
Furthermore, while the increased troops in Iraq have clearly helped the security situation, it really is debatable whether the surge deserves most of the credit for the reduction in violence. McCain certainly thinks so, but Obama doesn’t.
In an interview with ABC’s Terry Moran, Obama said that he “did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.”
Obama has a real point here. Additional US troops have definitely been a factor, but have they been the key factor? Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t think so.
SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?
Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.
Also, while many on the right argue that the Anbar Awakening and Sadr ceasefire are the results of the surge, that line of argument doesn’t really really hold up. Kevin Drum has the timeline:
- February 2006: Muqtada al-Sadr orders an end to execution-style killings by Mahdi Army death squads.
- August 2006: Sadr announces a broad ceasefire, which he has maintained ever since.
- September 2006: The Sunni Awakening begins. Tribal leaders, first in Anbar and later in other provinces, start fighting back against al-Qaeda insurgents.
- March 2007: The surge begins.
Spencer Ackerman asks the press corps to recognize that “this is completely fucking wrong” and points to then-Colonel, now-General Sean MacFarland explaining the origins of the awakening to UPI’s Pam Hess on September 29, 2006. That was a bit over a month before the midterm elections. The surge wasn’t announced until after the elections and wasn’t actually implemented until long after MacFarland gave the interview. And presumably the events he was describing happened before the interview itself.
This specific timing issue aside, we can see here the larger point that McCain doesn’t actually seem to know what the surge was. But the surge troops were overwhelmingly sent to increase the level of manpower in Baghdad (i.e., not where the Anbar Awakening happened) and almost certainly (along with a tactical shift to more of a population protection mission) deserves credit for reducing the bloodshed in Baghdad by stabilizing the borders between now-segregated neighborhoods. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that it had nothing to do what happened in Anbar, but it wasn’t a major factor, and certainly didn’t make anything happen in September 2006. I note that this isn’t the first time the right has had occasion to appeal to Michael Dummett’s theory of backward causation in their discussion of Iraq.
McCain really is in a tough spot here. He has to run on the surge, whatever the reality is. So, while the surge helped, the improvement in the security situation in Iraq has come from a lot of other things too. McCain can’t seem to acknowledge that, but it’s awfully rich to attack Obama for pointing out reality.