This report was updated on July 11.
This past Memorial Day, John McCain and Barack Obama stood before different crowds of flag-waving veterans, expressing their opposing visions of the best way forward in Iraq and receiving enthusiastic applause in return.
"As long as there is a reasonable prospect for succeeding in this war, then we must not choose to lose it," said McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, who mentioned Iraq 14 times in a 20-minute speech. "Our defeat in Iraq would be catastrophic, not just for Iraq but for us. I cannot be complicit in it."
After making his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq a touchstone of his campaign, Obama focused his Memorial Day speech on economic anxieties at home and the sense among voters that the country is heading in the wrong direction. "As many of you know, my intention is to bring this war in Iraq to a close and to start bringing home our troops in an orderly fashion," Obama said.
For the second time in the post-9/11 era, war is shadowing an American presidential campaign: the memory of one that the country lost long ago in Vietnam, the threat of one with Iran possibly looming on the horizon, and especially the one that the nation is embroiled in today in Iraq. A badly faltering economy may seem a more immediate concern to some voters, and a generational choice between experience and change certainly offers a simpler story line. Yet it's the complex matter of the Iraq war--what lessons its tragedies teach; who is best suited to win or end it--that most distinguishes and energizes the candidates. John McCain and Barack Obama may be running for president, but they are also auditioning for the job of wartime commander-in-chief. And each has staked his claim to that job largely on the issue of Iraq.
The Heart of the Matter
Politically, each campaign is betting that Iraq plays to its strengths. For those in the McCain camp, Iraq highlights their opponent's relative inexperience on the world stage, and they have loudly criticized Obama for failing to visit the country in the past two-plus years and for refusing to substantively adjust his timetable for troop withdrawals despite progress and a steep drop in violence achieved as a result of last year's "surge" in U.S. forces. The McCain camp, like President Bush, also frames the Iraq war as the centerpiece of its strategic vision for the broader Middle East.
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's director of national security and foreign-policy issues, speaking earlier this year at the Brookings Institution, put it this way: "We have huge interests in the Middle East and beyond. We have an Iranian nuclear program we need to address. We have moderate regimes that are under threat from Iran in its desire for regional hegemony. We have Israel's security to be concerned about. We have the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I would submit to you that choosing to lose in Iraq will make achieving our goals in any of those other areas far, far more difficult."
For its part, the Obama camp believes that a focus on the Iraq war will help define McCain as a "double-down bet" on a controversial Bush doctrine and an unpopular war. It has seized on McCain's comment about leaving U.S. troops there for "100 years" to highlight the diversion of resources from what it argues is the more urgent priority--the war in Afghanistan and the fight against a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
"Senator Obama's point all along was that the Iraq war was a massive strategic blunder, and that instead of diverting our attention we should have been pressing our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan against a significant threat from Al Qaeda," said Susan Rice, a senior foreign-policy adviser to the Obama campaign, speaking earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations. To address the global challenge that Al Qaeda still poses, she said, the United States needs to gradually draw down combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of one or two a month, "calibrated to circumstances on the ground."
"We will also leave a residual force on the ground to protect the embassy and continue to target the operations of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Rice said. "And to the extent that the Iraqi parties reach a political reconciliation that we all believe they must, so we are not potentially arming one side against the other, we will continue to train and support Iraqi security forces."
Of course, there is a measure of truth in the charges and countercharges coming from each camp. The Iraq debate is perhaps most notable, however, for the degree to which both sides have staked their claim to the White House on shifting sands. Both candidates have recently scrambled to recalibrate their positions in accordance with a fluid and unpredictable conflict.
As violence in Iraq has declined, for instance, Obama has sought to counter criticism that he is out of touch and wrong to stick to his narrative of abandoning a failed cause. After announcing that he would travel to Iraq to judge the situation for himself, he said in early July that he might "refine" his policy depending on what he learned from U.S. commanders on the ground. That change in tone was widely interpreted as a softening of his promise to end the war expeditiously. Just hours after making the comments, the candidate held a news conference to try to clarify them further.
"We're going to try this again. Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq," Obama said. "Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war."
For his part, McCain has also struggled to find firm footing on the issue of Iraq. By tying his fortunes so tightly to the surge's success, McCain has always been vulnerable to any major setbacks in Iraq--of which there have been many--or even spikes in violence such as those that U.S. officials in Iraq anticipate around the time of this fall's Iraqi provincial elections. After first seeming to support an indefinite presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, McCain has sought to assure a war-weary electorate that the majority of forces would be home by the end of his first term in 2013.
More recently, McCain’s position that his opponent’s timetable for withdrawal was dangerously misguided has been undercut by none other than Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On July 7, al-Maliki suggested that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq should be decided by “a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable for their withdrawal.”
Political maneuvering aside, a close look at the records of the candidates suggests that they both come by their views on Iraq consistently. In that sense, voters will benefit from a choice between two very different worldviews, each of which finds clear expression in the matter of the Iraq war.
In Washington, few politicians have advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein more consistently than John McCain. In choosing Scheunemann as his alter ego on national security for the campaign, McCain offered an unmistakable reminder of that advocacy. In 1998 Scheunemann was a project director for the Project for the New American Century, a brain trust of neoconservatives who were instrumental in gaining congressional support for the Iraq Liberation Act. That legislation, which McCain co-sponsored, changed U.S. policy from containing the Saddam regime to overthrowing it.
As a top national security adviser to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, Scheunemann also helped to formulate his candidate's policy of "rogue-state rollback" and regime change by proxy for nations such as Iraq and Iran. In 2002 Scheunemann founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq to rally domestic support for an invasion; that same year, McCain co-sponsored the legislation that authorized the use of force against Iraq. Although withering in his criticism of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his mismanagement of the Iraq war, McCain has never questioned the wisdom of invading, nor has he wavered in his determination to see the war through to some kind of victory.
To mitigate the political toll of his support for an unpopular war, McCain has stressed instead his lonely position in Congress as a strong supporter of last year's troop surge and the shift to a classic, more manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Progress on the ground as a result of the surge is largely credited with resurrecting McCain's flagging campaign in 2007.
After having endured more than five years as a POW in North Vietnam, McCain also sees parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, where a change in military leadership and tactics in 1968 under the banner of "Vietnamization" began improving the situation on the ground, but not in time or fast enough to rescue U.S. public opinion on the war. McCain is determined that such a failure of political will won't occur again.
Given President Bush's historically low approval ratings, McCain has taken pains to distance himself from the administration's broader foreign policy by promising a more multilateral approach to international affairs. Yet McCain does embrace important tenets of the Bush Doctrine, beginning with the belief that the fight against "radical Islamic extremists" and states that support them is still the "central threat of our time" and thus the logical organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. He likewise endorses the democratization agenda in the Middle East as the long-term antidote to that threat. And like Bush, McCain sees Iraq as the centerpiece of that struggle--a battle the United States must win at whatever cost.
"We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq, and it would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, and a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal," McCain said in a key foreign-policy speech in Los Angeles on March 26, 2008, arguing that the chief beneficiaries of such an exit would be Iran and Al Qaeda. "The consequences of our defeat [in Iraq] would threaten us for years, and those who argue for it, as both Democratic candidates do, are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date."
By stressing his willingness to negotiate even with reviled leaders of nations such as Cuba, Iran, and Syria, Obama signaled a decisive break with a Bush administration that he believes has generally devalued diplomacy. In his comments and policy positions, he embraces a more progressive internationalism that favors multilateralism over unilateralism, and seeks to broaden Washington's foreign-policy prism beyond Iraq and the war on terrorism. He has nevertheless pledged to increase U.S. forces and resources committed to operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Once again it is on the fundamental issue of the Iraq war, however, where Obama has drawn the clearest distinction with his opponent. At every opportunity, Obama reminds voters that as an Illinois state senator in 2002, he strongly rejected the Iraq invasion, and he has made that early opposition to the war a lodestar for his foreign-policy instincts and judgment.
"What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne," Obama said, speaking at an anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002. Although stressing that the world would be a better place without the brutality and crimes of Saddam Hussein, Obama argued that the Iraqi dictator did not pose an imminent threat. "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
In sharp contrast with McCain, Obama has thus set his clear timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, insisting that they will be out 16 months after he takes the oath of office, barring unforeseen developments on the ground. Confidants say that position reflects his view that Iraq's sectarian factions will reach a meaningful political reconciliation only under the pressure of a looming American exit.
"John McCain believes that George Bush's Iraq policy is a success," Obama reiterated on May 2. "So he's offering four more years of a war with no exit strategy, a war that leads to two and three and four and five tours of duty, a war that's cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of lives, and distracted us from the war that has to be won. Iraq is a war that has not made us more safe, a war that I believe should never have been authorized and should never have been waged."
This article appears in the June 14, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.