The match is almost perfect. As the surge in Iraq has succeeded, the
presidential campaign of John McCain has risen from the ashes. This is no
coincidence, and the message is simple and unmistakable. The surge is now a
powerful force in American politics. In the jargon of the 2008 presidential
race, it's a game-changer.
The surge effect is the result of gains in Iraq well beyond the most
optimistic dreams of the surge's advocates. The American military, led by
General David Petraeus, has under-promised and over-delivered. Violence has
dropped precipitously. So have attacks on Americans and combat deaths. Baghdad has been
virtually secured, al Qaeda crushed, and sectarian bloodshed significantly
reduced. Provinces once controlled by insurgents are scheduled to be turned
over to well-trained Iraqi forces, starting with Anbar in the spring. The war,
in short, is being won.
The media now say that Iraq
is a secondary issue. But the voters, so far mostly on the Republican side,
disagree. In New Hampshire last week,
two-thirds of Republicans who voted in the primary told exit pollsters they
support the war in Iraq.
Oddly enough, they like the war more than they like President Bush.
For obvious reasons, McCain is the chief beneficiary of the surge effect. He
has relentlessly promoted increasing the number of troops in Iraq and
adopting a counterinsurgency strategy that stresses the protection and safety
of Iraqi citizens. And a year ago, Bush bucked tremendous antiwar pressure,
much of it from Republicans, and announced the surge strategy. Like McCain, he
emphatically rejected the notion that the war was lost.
Last summer, when his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination
was at a low point, McCain was urged by some of his advisers to downplay his
support for the war. McCain rejected that advice. He knew how to evaluate a
military plan, understood that the counterinsurgency strategy was different
from what had been done before in Iraq, and knew what it could
accomplish (and has).
Now other Republican candidates are jumping on the surge bandwagon. At last
week's debate in South Carolina,
Rudy Giuliani said he had endorsed the surge, just like McCain. "Not at
the time," McCain responded, referring to the time before Bush's
announcement. McCain said he had "called for the change in strategy.
That's the difference." It's an important difference politically.
Democrats haven't felt the surge effect yet, and it shows. Democratic
congressional leaders insist the surge has achieved little that matters. Until
questioned in a televised debate in New
Hampshire, the Democratic presidential candidates had
largely ignored the surge.
Barack Obama was the most disappointing in the debate. He offered an
imaginative excuse for dismissing the surge: that the embrace of American
forces in Iraq
by Sunnis, the ruling ethnic group under Saddam Hussein, had been prompted by
the Democratic election victory in 2006. The Sunnis were suddenly fearful of an
American pullout that would leave them vulnerable to Shia oppression.
But the Sunni Awakening was a rebellion against the brutality of al Qaeda,
the one-time ally of the Sunnis in the insurgency. And it began well before the
American election. Indeed Sunni leaders have made clear that the Awakening
happened because of their confidence the Americans would be sticking around to
protect them from al Qaeda reprisals.
Hillary Clinton's response was equally amazing because she
passed up a chance to disown her indefensible suggestion last September that
General Petraeus was lying about the surge's success. At a Senate hearing, she
told him that believing his testimony required the "willing suspension of
disbelief." Asked if she still feels that way, Clinton said, "That's right."
This level of denial about the surge among Democrats is politically
dangerous. Democratic voters may be immune to the surge effect, but
independents are not. If the surge continues to bring stability to Iraq,
independents--who produced the Democratic triumph in the 2006 election--almost
certainly will begin to shift their support. They have no partisan commitment
to defeat in Iraq.
Like most Americans, they prefer victory.
Democrats are gambling on two things. One is that the Shia-led Iraqi
government won't take steps toward reconciliation with Sunnis. The other is
that the withdrawal of the five American surge brigades will lead to a renewal
of violence. There's a chance this will happen, just not a very good one.
Reconciliation is proceeding rapidly at the provincial level in Iraq. And now
that Sunnis have mostly given up their insurgency, violence is unlikely to
return to anything like pre-surge levels.
Of course McCain and Bush have gambled, too. McCain has staked his campaign
and Bush his presidency on a victory and a free and independent Iraq that promotes America's national security. From
the evidence of the growing surge effect, their gamble is paying off.