There is nothing like the blast of a Baghdad bomb and the wail of sirens to drown out John McCain’s bitter campaign sound bites or the patter of Barack Obama’s “premature victory lap.”
To point out that suicide bombers sundered the relative calm in Iraq on Monday, claiming more than 60 lives and injuring hundreds of people, is merely to underscore the obvious, which is that Iraq remains an unsettled and unsettling place. Americans who are obsessed with watching gas prices tick down or who are trying to afford a vacation could be forgiven for failing to notice the flare-ups: The news about Iraq in particular and foreign affairs in general has focused lately not on what is happening now but on what has gone on until now.
McCain’s incessant crowing about being right about the U.S. military “surge” that has played some part in quieting the violence in Iraq is beginning to come across like Obama’s incessant crowing about being right in opposing the Iraq war from the start. The difference is that McCain took a highly unpopular stand in supporting the “surge” while he was in a position of influence. Obama in 2002 took what was a highly popular position against the war while he was representing a liberal swath of Chicago in the Illinois Legislature. Obama not only had no influence over whether or not to go to war; he didn’t even have to cast a vote.
The proper course for each of these candidates would be to admit the obvious: McCain has to acknowledge that launching the Iraq war was a blunder. Obama must concede that the “surge” has been a relatively effective tourniquet—and that it has made possible more than mere political positioning about a proposed American withdrawal.
Both of these men are reluctant to admit error, though each of them, in my view, would gain from it. We have had quite enough of a president whose stubbornness in the face of facts has led to calamities on a global scale. And we all know by now that both McCain and Obama are not opposed to flip-flopping when it suits their political purposes. Could there be a more compelling reason to change position or to admit error than a question that involves the shedding of so much blood?
But the more crucial reason—the elemental one, in fact—for making such acknowledgements is so that we will not repeat the mistakes of campaigns past. In 2004, Republicans chose to refight the Vietnam conflict, tarring war hero John Kerry with the infamously false allegations about his service. The country had been attacked in 2001, we were fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet it is a good bet that more Americans are familiar with the term Swift boat than with the most basic outlines of the Sunni-Shiite feud. So it is now with the word surge, a term so overused it has either been imbued with meaning far out of proportion to its significance or, alternatively, been diminished to have none at all.
You would never know, from either the two candidates or the coverage of them, that the most significant point of debate about Iraq right now should be the Bush administration’s negotiations over terms for a continued U.S. military presence after the current United Nations authorization expires at the end of the year. The talks have speeded up of late, spurred by the president’s newfound interest in a time “horizon’’ for a withdrawal, the need to deploy more troops to Afghanistan and, not insignificantly, the political imperatives bearing down on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
No one expects presidential candidates to be parties to such talks. But it should not be too much to expect McCain and Obama to weigh in with some detail on a pact, and how each would shape it. After all, one of them will be the next president and will either have to live with it or alter it—if that is necessary or even feasible.
This is not the stuff of sound bites. And as usual in campaigns, the candidates are finding it altogether easier to make accusations about the past than to do the harder work of molding a future.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group