Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Obama's clean contrast

Obama's speech today before the Veterans of Foreign Wars makes my heart sing.

Not just because, as Josh Marshall and others are highlighting, he's called McCain out forcefully for impugning his patriotism: "I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same."

What I love is the pivot: given that we both love this country, contrast our policy proposals, past and present. The policy contrast is all the more withering for having itself been contrasted with McCain's character attacks -- a clean attack set off against a scurrilous one ("he'd rather lose a war than lose an election"). Here's the heart of it:
If we think that we can use the same partisan playbook where we just challenge our opponent's patriotism to win an election, then the American people will lose. The times are too serious for this kind of politics. The calamity left behind by the last eight years is too great. So let me begin by offering my judgment about what we've done, where we are, and where we need to go.

Six years ago, I stood up at a time when it was politically difficult to oppose going to war in Iraq, and argued that our first priority had to be finishing the fight against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Senator McCain was already turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, and he became a leading supporter of an invasion and occupation of a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and that - as despicable as Saddam Hussein was - posed no imminent threat to the American people. Two of the biggest beneficiaries of that decision were al Qaeda's leadership, which no longer faced the pressure of America's focused attention; and Iran, which has advanced its nuclear program, continued its support for terror, and increased its influence in Iraq and the region.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I warned that war would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East, create new centers of terrorism, and tie us down in a costly and open-ended occupation. Senator McCain predicted that we'd be greeted as liberators, and that the Iraqis would bear the cost of rebuilding through their bountiful oil revenues. For the good of our country, I wish he had been right, and I had been wrong. But that's not what history shows.

Senator McCain now argues that despite these costly strategic errors, his judgment has been vindicated due to the results of the surge. Let me once again praise General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker - they are outstanding Americans. In Iraq, gains have been made in lowering the level of violence thanks to the outstanding efforts of our military, the increasing capability of Iraq's Security Forces, the ceasefire of Shiite militias, and the decision taken by Sunni tribes to take the fight to al Qaeda. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them.

But understand what the essential argument was about. Before the surge, I argued that the long-term solution in Iraq is political - the Iraqi government must reconcile its differences and take responsibility for its future. That holds true today. We have lost over a thousand American lives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars since the surge began, but Iraq's leaders still haven't made hard compromises or substantial investments in rebuilding their country. Our military is badly overstretched - a fact that has surely been noted in capitals around the world. And while we pay a heavy price in Iraq - and Americans pay record prices at the pump - Iraq's government is sitting on a $79 billion dollar budget surplus from windfall oil profits.

Let's be clear: our troops have completed every mission they've been given. They have created the space for political reconciliation. Now it must be filled by an Iraqi government that reconciles its differences and spends its oil profits to meet the needs of its people. Iraqi inaction threatens the progress we've made and creates an opening for Iran and the "special groups" it supports. It's time to press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future. The best way to do that is a responsible redeployment of our combat brigades, carried out in close consultation with commanders on the ground. We can safely redeploy at a pace that removes our combat brigades in 16 months. That would be well into 2010 - seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, we'll keep a residual force to target remnants of al Qaeda; to protect our service members and diplomats; and to train Iraq's Security Forces if the Iraqis make political progress.

Iraq's democratically-elected Prime Minister has embraced this timeframe. Now it's time to succeed in Iraq by turning Iraq over to its sovereign government. We should not keep sending our troops to fight tour after tour of duty while our military is overstretched. We should not keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while Americans struggle in a sluggish economy. Ending the war will allow us to invest in America, to strengthen our military, and to finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan.

This is the central front in the war on terrorism. This is where the Taliban is gaining strength and launching new attacks, including one that just took the life of ten French soldiers. This is where Osama bin Laden and the same terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans on our own soil are hiding and plotting seven years after 9/11. This is a war that we have to win. And as Commander-in-Chief, I will have no greater priority than taking out these terrorists who threaten America, and finishing the job against the Taliban.

For years, I have called for more resources and more troops to finish the fight in Afghanistan. With his overwhelming focus on Iraq, Senator McCain argued that we could just "muddle through" in Afghanistan, and only came around to supporting my call for more troops last month. Now, we need a policy of "more for more" - more from America and our NATO allies, and more from the Afghan government. That's why I've called for at least two additional U.S. combat brigades and an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance for Afghanistan, with a demand for more action from the Afghan government to take on corruption and counternarcotics, and to improve the lives of the Afghan people.

We must also recognize that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan or secure America as long as there is a terrorist safe-haven in northwest Pakistan. A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot or will not act. Senator McCain criticized me and claimed that I was for "bombing our ally." So for all of his talk about following Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call to take out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.

I argued for years that we need to move from a "Musharraf policy" to a "Pakistan policy." We must move beyond an alliance built on mere convenience or a relationship with one man. Now, with President Musharraf's resignation, we have the opportunity to do just that. That's why I've cosponsored a bill to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

There is no one like Obama for putting individual policy proposals and judgments in the context of a coherent strategy. Frankly, I think that this matchless contextualizing here allows him to elide the fact (okay - my own perception) that McCain was right about the surge, and Obama was wrong. Everything Obama says here about the surge is true. It's prolonged U.S. bleeding in Iraq, and it worked in concert with other factors trending toward reduced violence -- the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr ceasefire, etc. But was the surge not stimulus, catalyst, force multiplier? Is Obama not far better positioned for his proposed troop removal than he would have been without the surge?

We should be able to accept that events to some extent split decisions between contenders -- and still make our judgments as to who has greater strategic acumen. To my mind, McCain is as reckless and feckless in his willingness to extend U.S. military commitments in response to every perceived threat as he is in his new-found zeal for every tax cut he can conceive. In both cases, there's no accountability because there's no accounting. McCain is in fact a fabulist. Obama is a realist -- at least relatively, and allowing for the overpromising that American politics elicits from all serious contenders. His proposed deployments of resources, military and financial, are based on cost-benefit analysis.

Sadly, in this speech Obama cannot call McCain out on his foolishly overextended support of Georgia's idiot president Saakashvili, because Obama is pushing the same policies -- unconditional support for Georgia's "territorial integrity," notwithstanding that huge majorities in the breakaway provinces want no part of it, and admission to NATO, notwithstanding that resolving border disputes is a condition of entry. Perhaps here, the pressure not to appear "soft"
is overwhelming.

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