Aaron's Real Opinions:

Iraq and the Election
How the Surge's Success May Have Decided the Presidential Election
by Aaron Harber
July 28, 2008- Print Article

Part 1: The Changes On The Ground

Some day, historians may look back on the 2008 presidential election and determine that it was decided on Saturday, July 19th - almost 3½ months before the General Election was held.

Many Americans - and even most of the U.S. Press - have failed to appreciate how the situation in Iraq has dramatically changed in the past 12 months. At this time last year, many had given up hope for success in Iraq by any definition. Today Iraq is at one of its most stable points since the War began 5½ years ago and is headed towards what may be its most significant series of truly democratic elections this fall.

There is no question the counterinsurgency strategy of General David Petraeus and his team have led to extraordinary gains in Iraq. Combined with decisions made by many tribal leaders to switch sides and oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq, also due in part to Petraeus's behind-the-scenes efforts in areas of publicity, media, and personal relationships - all of which gave tribal leaders the reassurances needed for them to have the comfort level required to change their policies - the Surge was an extraordinary success.

The Surge was so successful that it allowed the United States to begin the process of withdrawing troops from Iraq - a process which already has included a number of troops equal to the majority of the increase which occurred due to the Surge. And that withdrawal process is destined to continue until most, if not all, U.S. troops have departed.

Concomitant with the Surge was the multi-year, Petraeus-led effort to improve and increase the training of the Iraqi military. The extraordinary results of these efforts have been demonstrated for several months but have been most impressive recently as Iraqi forces, with minimal U.S. support, began a systematic effort to eliminate militias and lawless groups across the country.

Senator and Republican presidential nominee John McCain always was a strong supporter of the War in Iraq, General Petraeus, and the Surge. The success of Petraeus and the Surge should have been strong testimony to McCain's perceptiveness and good judgment, especially in regard to the military and foreign affairs.

Senator and Democratic presidential Barack Obama opposed the Iraq War from the start and based his initial primary election campaign on distinguishing himself from his leading competitors on that issue. He made a convincing case against the War and why our entry into it was a terrible mistake. Obama also opposed the Surge and the investment of additional resources into what he and most activist Democrats believed was a lost cause. And Obama has consistently called for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

So why has the success of Petraeus and the Surge possibly meant an electoral victory for Obama rather than McCain?

Part 2: How Iraq Is Booting The United States

Senator John McCain has argued he is the presidential candidate with the most extensive foreign affairs knowledge and experience. He has argued the War in Iraq needs to be evaluated based on large, global objectives. He also has posited our withdrawal should be based on the achievement of specific milestones rather than be date-driven. His argument is that selecting arbitrary dates for withdrawal which are unrelated to certain objectives makes no sense - especially if such a capricious timetable results in the loss of critical gains.

Senator Barack Obama long ago concluded we should not be in Iraq and proposed we should withdraw completely in a 16-month period. The 16-month figure is doable but would be a logistical challenge for the U.S. Military. The Military probably would prefer a 24- to 36-month timetable. The real question today is, "Will Iraq give us two years to leave?"

McCain argued it is in our interest to "stay the course" in Iraq even if this means remaining militarily active for several years and then retaining a presence for decades as part of a larger Middle East strategy, with that long-term presence similar to those we have in Europe and Asia.

What has happened, however, is our American-centric perspective has allowed us to ignore the Iraqis who have been telling us for months it is time for us to leave their country. This message began being communicated almost a year ago. And when Iraq and the U.S. began negotiating a long-term security agreement, it became obvious the Iraqis were unwilling to give up certain sovereign rights (such as the right to prosecute Americans and U.S. contractors for crimes committed in Iraq).

U.S. negotiators, thinking they had leverage because Iraq needed the U.S., failed to understand the perspective of their Iraqi counterparts. With the success of the Surge, with the stability which was prevailing in almost all provinces, with the growth and maturation of the Iraqi Military, with al-Qaeda in Iraq on the run, with oil revenues bringing in billions of dollars, with various political parties becoming fully engaged, with diplomatic efforts gaining ground (from new ambassadors being assigned to Baghdad to the forgiving of Iraqi foreign debt), Iraq has been on a roll. Its leaders realized the U.S. had done its job and Iraq did not need to make many concessions.

The result was the total breakdown of the negotiations for a long-term agreement. At best, the U.S. and Iraq will complete a short-term (i.e., one- or two-year) security agreement. And even in that agreement, the Iraqis will not yield much when it comes to issues related to their sovereignty.

What was politically stunning was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's statement on July 19, 2008, that Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable not only was reasonable but was right on target. Although some backtracking was done by Maliki and by U.S. officials, the damage had been done - the proverbial cat was out of the bag. Foreign policy newcomer and alleged novice Obama had nailed it. Americans now knew his proposal to depart Iraq in 16 months not only was logistically viable but was what the Iraqis wanted, too.

Part 3: Why Maliki's Statement Makes Obama The Foreign Policy Master

Americans paying attention have learned the Iraqis no longer want us in their country. This actually has been the case for some time but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's announcement that Senator Barack Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable was a reasonable one brought that message home forcefully.

Americans are beginning to understand Iraqis truly see the U.S. no longer as their liberator but as an occupying force - and one which no longer needed to be in their country. And Americans are likely to think, "Well, if the Iraqi Government believes our job is done and if the Iraqi people want us to leave, gee, maybe it is time to go."

While the U.S. Military and various politicians can argue more time is needed because they do not believe Iraq is ready to stand alone, Americans will understand this no longer is our choice. We have assisted Iraq in the creation of what we recognize as a viable government. While the Iraqi call for an aggressive withdrawal plan may be based on complex internal political factors within Iraq, it nevertheless is the Iraqis' right to make these decisions - even if we think they are wrong. And if we think these decisions and a 16-month timetable is wrong, we have no basis for overruling the very government we helped install.

The domestic outcome in the United States is Obama appears to have understood the situation in Iraq better than Senator John McCain and came to the correct conclusion while McCain appears to have been too focused on what the U.S. Military wants and had erroneously concluded what our long-term role in Iraq truly should be without fully considering Iraqi desires.

Even though McCain can argue his basic positions -- such as supporting the Surge -- were the right ones, it is Obama who appears most recently to have been more providential in his assessment. And it is Obama's withdrawal plan which is closest to what the Iraqi people and the Iraqi Government want -- and are likely to get.

McCain has successfully argued Obama's reticence to specifically admit the Surge was a huge success demonstrates a weakness on Obama's part but that is "inside baseball" for most of the American public. What they see is a candidate who wants us to leave a country which is telling us to go. No matter how it is configured, that combination always spells "withdrawal."

What McCain should be doing is declaring the War was a success and celebrating the efforts made by the U.S. Military. And he should then lead the parade calling for the troops to come home.

The stark contrast between (1) a U.S.-centric McCain policy which views Iraq as one part of the greater Mideast puzzle and (2) the Obama worldview that Iraq's self-determination also means self-government has extraordinary implications for the General Election because it totally undermines John McCain's political strategy to cast himself as the candidate most able to handle international relations.

Instead, it appears the candidate of "Change," Barack Obama, better understands what other nations desire and what the appropriate role of the United States should be - i.e., to help and then get out of the way rather than to insist on sticking around (which, in turn, potentially undermines the viability of any government we support).

If Obama exploits this contrast, like a political martial artist, he could end up using what should have been McCain's strength as Obama's own greatest weapon. And if Obama eviscerates the foreign policy component of McCain's presidential strategy, McCain will have little left of his campaign.

If this switch of position occurs and Obama is perceived as the candidate with the superior foreign affairs policy, McCain will have an even tougher task of convincing voters he is the right candidate for this particular time in history. The result may be McCain will need to come up with a completely new strategy to win the November election. Right now, the presidency appears to be Obama's to lose.

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