In recent days Barack Obama has sought to establish bluer water between himself and John McCain over Iraq.
Did he succeed?
Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh
Yes, he has succeeded to a degree. He has made it clear that Afghanistan will be the first front in his revised war on terror. By wrapping up Iraq quickly – most US brigades, save for a residual force, to depart with sixteen months – he is promising to redirect US violence on the Taliban. McCain, alternatively, says that the Iraq war should not be judged according to a timetable established in a US electoral campaign. If winning takes time then time it shall take. The war on terror is not a debate between Iraq-firsters and Afghanistan-firsters. It is a global war on multiple fronts that demands attention to all those fronts.
Two features are worthy of note. First, despite what elements of his domestic base may be hoping, a President Obama is not seeking a withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East theater. Rather, he is pledging to redeploy American troops so as to better advance the war on terror. His initial caution over the Iraq liberation was not grounded in a leftist pacifism. It was, instead, the product of his empiricism. The Iraq war was a tactical misstep which he is pledged to correct. But the essential strategy of Bush’s war on terror has not been disavowed. President Bush stands accused by the Illinois senator not for being a warmonger but for being an incompetent war monger. ‘Make me commander in chief,’ Obama is saying, ‘and I will make violence abroad more effectively. Pakistan watch out.’
This position will no doubt induce a good deal of buyer’s remorse among his ideological base. But Obama is no ideologue. He is smart – ask Hillary Clinton who was so comprehensively outplayed by him in the primaries – ruthless – ‘I know ye not Reverend Wright’ – and of flexible principle – making decisions on the basis of evidence not theory. These are characteristics that might be unattractive on a personal level but are to be welcomed in a war president.
Despite the recent attempts to make Iraq a clear issue of difference, McCain and Obama are implicitly telling us that the Bush strategy is sound. Where they differ, with him and each other, is on tactics. Tactics are technical affairs, tweaked to advance a strategy. The Vietnam war was a tactic within a wider, longer strategy. That tactic, as with Iraq, was the cause of significant dissensus. The strategy it was supposed advance – the containment of communism – was not. It commanded consensus.
Both candidates have pledged that they will alter tactics to advance the strategic goal – of keeping WMD out of terrorist hands – but wont disavow the goal itself. They are thus both running for the third Bush term – but this time a component one.
Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh are authors of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy.
Dr. Lynch will be at several US speaking engagements this month.