Schlepping toward the Center

In the past week, both Senators Obama and McCain have begun talking in ways about Iraq that suggests their stark differences on the subject are not really as fundamental as they have been made to seem. Let the schlepping begin.

As noted in the most recent posting, there are really three positions one can take about what to do about Iraq after inauguration day in January 2009. The candidates have occupied the extremes. Obama has favored getting out rapidly on a fixed timetable of withdrawal. This position speaks to the public desire for American withdrawal and is based on the presumption that the United States had no good reason to be there in the first place and that a protracted continuation will do little good and might even do more harm. McCain has adopted the other extreme, which is that the United States must remain in Iraq until victory is achieved, and that the surge is working to achieve that end. The elusive term victory has gone from producing a democratic Iraq to a stable Iraq. 

The two extremes share a common problem: both raise objections from the public. Leaving raises hackles because a growing portion of the population now thinks that “progress” is now being made and that pulling up stakes will throw away that effort and progress. An open-ended commitment to victory, on the other hand, violates the public desire to see the war end.

How to deal with this dilemma? The answer seems to be to head from the extremes toward the center, a third position that can be thought of as Don’t Leave So Fast/Stay Just a Little Bit Longer. Obama is moving toward the former: he is now scheduled to visit Iraq, where he will be regaled with signs of progress. He has already said that withdrawal will be conditioned by what the military tells him, and they are not going to tell him to leave instantly. McCain, on the other hand, has been backtracking from his assessment of being there “as long as it takes” by suggesting that progress is greater than expected, and thus we may not have to stay as long as once feared. Obama says the timetables are flexible, McCain that success may come sooner rather than later. Is it only a matter of time until these two positions converge on a common point in time for American extraction from Iraq?

These changes reflect changes in the public mood, in two ways. One is that American assessment of the war’s progress has change. Fewer Americans see Iraq as a inevitably lost cause and have softened their opposition to the war. At the same time, the abyssmal performance of the American economy has shoved Iraq out of the electoral limelight (a not uncommon phenomenon). If Obama wants to reenergize the Iraq issue, he might be well advised to tie economic performance to the effects of Iraq (for instance, the impact of borrowing for Iraq on the strength of the dollar and consequently the higher number of dollars needed to buy a barrel of oil). McCain, of course, wants to get as far away as he can from the Bush economy and as close as he can toward a national security election, at which he feels he is advantaged. In the meantime, both are quietly schlepping their way toward a closer ground on the Iraq War.

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