Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Times-ers: Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich channel each other

In two different Sunday Times (Timeses?) today, two political commentators with very different perspectives addressed the same phenomenon: the apparent fact that John McCain, despite championing the surge when almost no one else did, is getting little credit from voters for the dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq.

The London Sunday Times' Andrew Sullivan, a self-proclaimed conservative attempting to redefine the movement who's simultaneously one of Obama's most passionate admirers, retains far more respect and sympathy for McCain than Frank Rich, the New York Times scourge of CW in general (as he likes to frame it, anyway) and Republican mythography and governance in particular. But Sullivan no more than Rich finds in McCain's support for the surge a reason to support McCain. Noting that in supporting the surge "McCain was right...it’s unarguable that the prospects for a noncatastrophe in Iraq have vastly improved over the past 12 months," Sullivan sees irony in the electorate's response:

So McCain is basking in success, right? Vindicated by events, he can present himself as the man who rescued the Iraq occupation and is best positioned to take it forward. Easy as pie, no? Alas for McCain, not at all.

The overwhelming response among Americans to good news from Iraq is a simple question: can we come home now? With a hefty majority still believing the war was a mistake in the first place, the “success” of the surge is less a vindication of the entire enterprise than an opportunity to get the hell out with less blowback than previously feared. Moreover, the less chaotic the situation in Iraq, the easier it is for the Democrats to persuade Americans that the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama is not that big a risk as commander-in-chief.

Rich sees no irony but notes the same political reality:
In America, the war has been a settled issue since early 2007. No matter what has happened in Iraq since then, no matter what anyone on any side of the Iraq debate has had to say about it, polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans judge the war a mistake and want out. For that majority, the war is over except for finalizing the withdrawal details....

But reminding voters of his identification with Iraq, no matter how he spins it, pays no political dividends to Mr. McCain. People just don’t want to hear about it.
Both suggest that notwithstanding the fact that McCain forcefully advocated a policy (rejected by Obama) that has made "noncatastrophe" far more likely, Obama looks better equipped to build on this fragile success.

Sullivan:
Withdrawal the right way, moreover, plays to Obama’s strengths, not McCain’s. McCain is a superb fighter and underdog, a man who likes his conflicts clear and his wars epic. He takes strong moral stands and sticks with them. But what is now required is a deft and subtle assessment of future military needs, a hefty dose of canny diplomacy with Iran and Syria and an ability to retain the trust of Americans that an exit is both feasible and imminent. On all these, Obama is obviously a more pragmatic choice.
Rich:
The fact is that Mr. Obama frequently recognizes “the reduction of violence in Iraq” (his words) and has said he is “encouraged” by it. He has never said that he would refuse to consult with commanders on the ground, and he has never called for a precipitous withdrawal. His mantra on Iraq, to the point of tedium, has always been that “we must be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” His roughly 16-month timetable isn’t hasty and isn’t “retreat.” As The Economist, a supporter of the war, recently put it, a safer Iraq does not necessarily validate Mr. McCain’s “insistence on America staying indefinitely” and might make Mr. Obama’s 16-month framework “more feasible.”
Both, moreover, attribute Obama's greater likelihood of bringing U.S. involvement to an acceptable conclusion to the contrast in the two men's strategic goals: for McCain, a very gradual wind-down toward a peaceful long-termU.S. protectorate, and for Obama, a relatively rapid withdrawal that allows the U.S. to concentrate more effort on Afghanistan. (To achieve the goal of withdrawing most forces from Iraq, Obama on April 11, while questioning U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, laid out a minimalist goal for Iraq: "If...our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe." Crocker essentially accepted Obama's formulation; McCain demands much more.)

Here's Sullivan on why McCain's prescription for Iraq is likely to be rejected:

You can see this in McCain’s biggest gaffe of the primary campaign. He was asked how long American troops would be in Iraq. He said he didn’t care if it were a hundred years or even a thousand years. He meant in a noncombat role, not in active warfare, but his answer revealed a core assumption: that the US will have permanent military bases in Iraq for the indefinite future, and that this is the equivalent of the long-term presence in Germany and South Korea. A pliant Arab state, fortified with US bases for the next century, and a staging post to contain Iran: these are McCain’s obvious best-case scenarios. And as the Bush administration’s plans for up to 60 permanent bases in Iraq are rejected by many Iraqi politicians, McCain’s stance begins, once again, to morph into Bush’s.

For most Americans, this is not a good thing. They have no desire to keep young Americans policing the Sunni-Shi’ite fault line halfway across the globe indefinitely; most want the massive resources now being drained by Iraq to be directed homeward. And there’s enough distrust of politicians who backed this war in the first place to be suspicious of anyone who did so and who is still eager to keep troops there indefinitely.

Here's Rich:
Should voters tune in, they'll also discover that the McCain policy is nonsensical on its face. If "we are winning" and the surge is a "success," then what is the rationale for keeping American forces bogged down there while the Taliban regroups ominously in Afghanistan? Why, if this is victory, does Mr. McCain keep threatening that "chaos and genocide" will follow our departure? And why should we take the word of a prophet who failed to anticipate the chaos and ethnic cleansing that would greet our occupation?

And exactly how, as Mr. McCain keeps claiming, is an indefinite American occupation akin to our long-term military role in South Korea? The diminution of violence notwithstanding, Iraq is an active war zone. And unlike South Korea, it isn't asking America to remain to protect it from a threatening neighbor. Iraq's most malevolent neighbor, Iran, is arguably Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's closest ally. In the most recent survey, in February, only 27 percent of Iraqis said the American presence is improving their country's security. Far from begging us to stay, some Iraqi politicians, including Mr. Maliki, have been pandering to their own election-year voters by threatening to throw the Yankees out.
Perhaps there's not much surprising in two Obama supporters finding Obama's strategic vision more compelling than McCain's, whatever the long- or short-term success of the surge. But there's something striking in the similar arc these two see in McCain's sandwiching of at least a partial strategic success (supporting the surge, which even Rich acknowledges might facilitate U.S. withdrawal) between two failures: supporting the war in the first place, and failing now to define an endgame acceptable to most Americans.

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