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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Two Takes On Iraq, Five Years In

Today, as you probably know, is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. And two national politicians–George W. Bush and Barack Obama–marked the anniversary with major speeches on the subject.
Anyone who doubts there are significant differences between the two parties on foreign policy and national security issues ought to read these two speeches. No, George W. Bush won’t be on the ballot this year, but John McCain has accepted and even championed Bush’s point of view on the original decision to invade Iraq and the “victory” strategy going forward. And no, Obama has not yet won the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton, while disagreeing with Obama’s analysis of the original war resolution vote, does agree with him in most particulars about what to do now.
The gap between Bush and Obama is remarkably wide and deep. Bush still argues that the original decision to invade Iraq was justified by Saddam’s “threatening” behavior and the need for a more aggressive post-9/11 U.S. military posture in the Middle East. He’s still asserting the “flypaper” theory that al Qaeda’s involvement in Iraq has denied it the resources to attack America again, and still claims the invasion has made us safer. He’s still dismissing the post-invasion Iraqi turmoil as little more than a rearguard action by elements of Saddam’s regime, augmented by al Qaeda. And he’s still predicting “victory,” defined as a stable Iraqi democracy.
Obama, on the other hand, continues to argue that the invasion was based on lies, bad intelligence, ideology, and most of all a major strategic blunder. He continues to stress the handicaps the war has imposed on the United States, ranging from an overstretched military, to erosion of prior gains in Afghanistan, to neglect of Pakistan, to soured alliances, to the overall costs of the war in human and dollar terms. And he continues to deride the idea of “victory” in Iraq as based on a perpetual engagement with no real definition of success.
The only real change in Bush’s argument over time has been his shift from delusional talk about military and political progress in Iraq to celebration of the real (if limited) military progress associated with the “surge.” And as always, he stresses the allegedly baleful consequences of any sort of withdrawal, especially now that “victory” is in sight.
Meanwhile, Obama is honing his own argument on the “surge” as a tactical success within a strategic failure. His passage today on McCain’s Iraq position nicely combines his analysis of the “surge” with the claim that his own consistent opposition to the war gives him the upper hand in a general election debate on the subject:

If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss – tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That’s why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue – as he did last year – that we couldn’t leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can’t leave Iraq because violence is down.

To the extent that the small recent shift in public opinion towards optimism on Iraq has not been matched by any retroactive positive judgment on the wisdom of the war itself, Obama’s approach makes a lot of political sense. Let the Republicans, Bush and McCain alike, try to perpetually make untenable claims about the whole mess, and it will become clear that after five long years–longer, as Obama pointed out today, than the American engagement in either World War, and longer than the American Civil War–time is definitely not on their side.

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