For months now, John McCain has been calling Barack Obama naïve or worse for suggesting that a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was not only possible, but desirable. Obama’s contention has been that only a timetable will force the kind of political solution that will end the war. McCain has insisted that the future of Iraq is critical to U.S. interests and that we must stay until we win, although he has been reluctant to sketch precisely what he means by “victory.”
Enter Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who yesterday said that Iraq’s government might call for a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal. Al-Maliki also faces election challenges and his main opponent, fellow Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr, has long called for the removal of U.S. troops. Al-Sadr is the Iraqi answer to Moveon.org, someone with whom there is little room for compromise and even less concern for the consequences of an immediate U.S. withdrawal.
For McCain, this is a nightmare scenario. McCain has staked his claim to the White House on his experience in foreign affairs and security matters. It is an area where he differed from President Bush early and often, arguing for more troops. He helped create the political support for the “surge” which both encapsulated his views and has succeeded in lowering the levels of violence in Iraq. McCain has greater credibility on Iraq than almost any other supporter of the war. But, how to convince an American electorate that has grown tired of the war effort that they need to stay the course when the Iraqi government is itself calling for a withdrawal?
Obama’s nightmare is different, more distant and misty, less politically challenging in the short-term but more worrisome strategically for the country in the long-term. Al-Sadr is not calling for an American withdrawal because he wants peace. He wants the U.S. out so that the Shiites can, with help from their Iranian backers, take control of the country. The rights of the Sunni and Kurd minorities are not at the top of al-Sadr’s agenda, nor does he see creating an Iraqi bulwark against further Iranian influence as a major goal. No matter how you slice it, he is an enemy of the U.S. and no presidential candidate wants to be seen in agreement with an enemy of the U.S. More distantly and importantly, no U.S. president can idly sit by and watch civil war engulf Iraq after we leave.
If McCain or Obama lose in November, they can return to the Senate, join the private sector, or take a teaching gig at a local university. Politicians who lose in Iraq may forfeit their lives and the lives of their children. They are playing for different stakes in Iraq and, like the antebellum U.S. there is yet no national identity. As historian Shelby Foote points out, before the Civil War, people said, “The United States are…” but only after the war did people begin to say, “The United States is….” Americans can hope that Iraq will be spared a long and bloody war to forge a national identity or, more likely, to see the country split apart into religious and ethnic enclaves.
In the near term, the political developments on the ground will only cause discomfort for America’s presidential contenders. Discomfort is a small price to pay for such a huge strategic blunder as the initial decision to invade Iraq. And, it is unfair that McCain and Obama should be paying Bush’s bill. But, we are all paying the bill and we should. At the time, most Americans approved this war when they could not even find Iraq on a map. More than five years and 4,000 American soldiers’ lives later, we need to face the consequences. They are grim. The consequences of war are always grim and that should be a lesson for all of us, Democrat and Republican.
Michael Sean Winter