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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How to Challenge John McCain’s “Stay until We Finish the Job” Narrative about Iraq

Ed Kilgore’s post (see below) about the inclusion of a timetable for withdrawal in the new U.S. Iraq status of forces agreement is right on target. In the real world of foreign policy, the agreement marks a fundamental shift to the policy outlook and world-view of Barack Obama.
The Neo-conservative fantasy was to make Iraq a stable, pro-western state economically oriented toward the U.S. and favorable to U.S. interests. To accomplish this inescapably implied a very substantial long-term U.S. military presence – possibly for decades – and any timetable for withdrawal or other explicit agreement that U.S. forces had to leave the country had no part in the Neo-con plan.
As political issue, however, the negative consequences for John McCain’s presidential campaign can to a significant degree be controlled. The administration and the McCain campaign are already redoubling their efforts to make convoluted semantic distinctions between “aspirational goals” and “inflexible deadlines” in order to maintain the fiction that there is some difference between what Bush and McCain have been forced to accept and what Obama has advocated throughout his campaign. They are also energetically promoting the notion that the demand for a timetable is actually a piece of superficial political theater the Iraqi leadership is employing to pose as nationalists in upcoming elections and not really a serious diplomatic demand.
These semantic games – unconvincing as they are to serious observers – will be sufficient to satisfy many ordinary voters because for a large number the specific issue of timetables is ultimately a small subordinate part of two larger political narratives.


The first of these is the McCain/Bush perspective which can be called the “stay until we finish the job” narrative. It has three basic elements:

a. That there have been vast improvements in the last year and we are “on the verge of victory or success” or that we have already “won”
b. That, nonetheless, the success is still weak or “fragile” and could be reversed by renewed ethnic conflict, a military coup or unemployment and poverty
c. That, as a result, Iraq still needs to have substantial U.S. forces stationed there for an extended indeterminate period until stability has been insured.

The other perspective — expressed by Obama – can be called the “take advantage of the opportunity to redeploy” narrative, also with three elements:

a. That the Iraqi demand that we agree on a timetable for leaving actually represents a unique opportunity for the U.S. to honorably pass responsibility to the Iraqi people and to redeploy our forces to Afghanistan and elsewhere to better combat global terrorism.
b. That the U.S. should replace open-ended support for the Maliki government with conditional aid and assistance that encourages political accommodation between the ethnic groups of Iraq and provides incentives for stabilization.
c. That the U.S. should systematically redeploy some residual forces to relatively remote, well-protected bases in Iraq and the bulk to Afghanistan and elsewhere over a period of approximately one to two years.

A voter’s preference for one or another of these two narratives will be deeply rooted in his or her broader perspectives and views on a variety of subjects like the legitimacy of military force, the importance of patriotism and America’s proper relation to the Arab-Persian world. As a result, support for these perspectives will not change quickly or in response to specific events. The McCain campaign will therefore find it possible to redefine the words “timetables” ‘deadlines”, “conditions-based” and so on to the point that voters who wish to do so can make the words fit within the contours of the “finish the job” storyline. A substantial body of social psychological research has shown that this is often an almost effortless and unconscious process.
Then, as the campaign heats up, McCain will push the debate into simple dichotomies of victory and defeat, of “stay the course” vs. “quit and run”. McCain’s current letter to supporters, for example, says that if Obama has his way “our troops will be recklessly pulled out, and our enemies handed a victory they have neither won or deserve… (I) will see the war through to victory”. It goes on to say “No nation has ever become more secure retreating from a conflict that they are winning or by standing down their troops in the face of a sworn enemy”
This is the kind of rhetoric that McCain will use during the fall campaign and as long as nothing goes disastrously wrong inside Iraq, he will retain the support of those who are inclined to accept this basic perspective. The effect of the fact that he has been forced to change his position on a “timetable” will be relatively small.
There is, however, one basic way that Democrats can profoundly challenge the McCain campaign’s “stay until we finish the job” narrative. It lies in fact that in the last several months the pro-war strategists have actually taken a profound gamble. They have made the narrative unqualifiedly triumphant (“the surge has succeeded”, “the war is over, we’ve won”, “let’s not throw away our victory” etc.). They have not hedged their bets by also warning that there might yet be major problems ahead – including even the need to accept substantial and painful new sacrifices.
As a result, McCain’s strategists cannot afford to allow voters to think seriously about the potential problems that may arise in Iraq. They will desperately want potential problems not to be mentioned at all.
The appropriate strategy for Democrats, in consequence, should therefore be to point out that there are indeed very substantial problems that may lie ahead if we insist on trying to stay in Iraq long enough to “finish the job”. In fact, even respected military experts who support a “stay until we finish the job” strategy openly admit that there are major dangers. In a major article in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, Stephen Biddle, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack note the following:

That even as the US continues to provide payments of 300 dollars a month to over 100,000 of our new-found Sunni allies, there are already very disturbing signs of growing tension between them and the Shia-dominated government and army.
That, as the Iraqi army has grown substantially in size and armament, there is increasing concern that at some point military officers might push aside the weak political parties and take power in a military coup.
That while the armed militias of Moqtada al-Sadr have been substantially weakened, this has left increasingly adrift thousands of youths in major cities who are unemployed, frustrated and angry.

Democrats should therefore challenge McCain to honestly admit that there are very real potential dangers in his “stay until we finish the job” strategy. To do this most dramatically, they could pose the three key questions below in full-page ads in major media like USA today and the Washington Post.

Question 1 – If renewed sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shia breaks out in Iraq will McCain order our troops to turn against our new Sunni allies and attack them or will he order US forces to militarily support them against the Shia-dominated Iraqi army? Will US troops actively participate in combat to support one side or another or remain neutral? If US troops remain neutral, what purpose will be served by keeping them in harm’s way?
Question 2 – In the event of a military coup, will US troops be ordered into battle to attempt to restore a civilian government or will they be ordered to provide active support for a new military junta?
Question 3 – If unplanned urban riots break out and US forces are confronted by angry mobs of young people throwing rocks and bottles as occurred in the occupied territories during the Palestinian “intifadas”. will US forces be deployed as riot control police? Will they be ordered to open fire with their weapons on angry urban youths?

A simplified version of these same questions can be used in the format of a TV spot on, for example, Fox News, making it impossible for McCain to ignore.
The McCain campaign will desperately want to avoid discussing questions like this. They will not want to admit the possibility that the current lull in violence may be temporary rather than permanent. They will try to avoid it by saying “None of these things is going to happen”, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll keep all our options open”, “we’ll trust the men at the scene to make the decisions” or “it’s not helpful to speculate about matters like this” (they might even consider arguing that “its unpatriotic or treasonous to ask such questions in wartime” but this would leave their triumphant “we’ve already won” storyline badly undermined)
These kinds of responses by the McCain campaign will therefore make possible a second round of attack ads such as the following.

John McCain says we should stay in Iraq until the job is done but he refuses to say what he will do if the most basic and obvious problems arise – potential problems like a renewal of sectarian violence, a military coup or urban riots by unemployed youth like the Palestinian intifada.
He says you don’t need or deserve to have any answers to those questions. Just leave it to the soldiers and the experts, he says — in other words, don’t ask any questions, just leave everything to him.
But these aren’t battlefield issues of strategy and tactics – they are basic issues of U.S. foreign policy and voters have a right to know what a candidate for President plans to do about them if they arise.
Ask yourself this question – why won’t the man who calls himself “Mr. Straight Talk” tell the voters what he would do about the most important problems that could arise in Iraq if we try to stay until the country is finally stable. Does he not have any contingency plans to deal with problems like these, or does he have plans about which he doesn’t want you to know?
Either way, ask yourself, is this the way a candidate for President should behave? Is this leadership? Is this the kind of person you want running the country for the next four years?

The basic strategy being suggested here has one objective – to make voters who would under ordinary circumstances be attracted to the “finish the job” narrative to stop for a moment and think:
“It would be great if we could permanently stabilize Iraq, but we could also get stuck in a mess over there like we were just one or two years ago. The truth is that the calm over there probably won’t last forever and things could easily go to hell again. Maybe we oughta take advantage of this opportunity to get out while things are calm.”
This is the question the McCain campaign will most desperately want to prevent its potential supporters from considering. Democrats therefore should seek in every way to bring it to the forefront of their minds.

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