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Target: McCain By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 16, 2008

Those seeking signs that the 2008 presidential race has begun in earnest need only consult this weekend's New York Times Magazine. Coincident with Barack Obama's emergence as the Democratic nominee in all but name, the magazine features an 8,000-plus word article by national political reporter Matt Bai that crystallizes what will surely be the Democrats' preferred line of attack against John McCain leading up to November's election. Framed as an evolutionary study of McCain's foreign-policy thinking, it is in fact a straightforward attempt to implicate the Arizona senator in the failures – real, distorted and flat-out fabricated – of the war in Iraq.

Not the least tendentious of the article's claims is its assertion that McCain, alone among Vietnam War veterans in Congress, remains a supporter of the Iraq effort – a position that puts him in the political corner opposite the likes of John Kerry, Jack Murtha, and Jim Webb. While technically true, the difference in opinion would seem to owe less to the particulars of these men's experiences in Vietnam, as Bai suggests, than to the simple fact that Democrats uniformly have turned against the war. The sole Democratic stalwart on Iraq, Joe Lieberman, was ingloriously purged from his party for bucking precisely that trend. Likewise, in the context of the war's unpopularity McCain's refusal to join the chorus advocating too-hasty withdrawal would seem to recommend his political independence.

Unless one believes, as Bai appears to and the Democratic leadership unquestionably does, that the war in Iraq is a lost cause. Hence Bai's puzzlement that McCain continues to support the troops' work. Why, he asks, "does he think it still makes sense to stay?"

McCain's answer is that the United States has real strategic interests in Iraq, including but not limited to eliminating al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadists. Because it contradicts the anti-war claim that the Iraq can be safely abandoned, this view has no constituency in Democratic circles. To the contrary, it is now conventional wisdom that Iraq is utterly disconnected from the fight against al-Qaeda. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama made exactly this argument in a 2006 speech in Chicago, in which he suggested that the U.S. should leave Iraq to "refocus on the wider struggle to be won." A variation on the theme comes from the Times' Bai, who notes that "[t]o the dismay of many of his critics, McCain often uses 'Al Qaeda' as a shorthand for the Iraqi insurgent group that calls itself al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia."

Such dismay reveals more about McCain's critics that it does about the candidate. In truth, al-Qaeda in Iraq is part and parcel of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Its members may be largely Iraqi, but the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies holds that its leadership is predominantly foreign-born and directly subordinate to al-Qaeda. (It is no coincidence that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, al-Qaeda in Iraq's current commander, is an Egyptian, while his late predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a Jordanian national.) All of which confirms military analyst Frederick Kagan's observation that "al-Qaeda in Iraq is part of the global al-Qaeda movement." McCain, to his credit and the Democrats' annoyance, has made the point the stump. "Al Qaeda is in Iraq," he has said, noting that there is a good reason that "it's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.'"

Al-Qaeda's demonstrable presence in Iraq is certainly one reason for what Bai dispassionately calls McCain's "intransigence" on Iraq. A kindred reason, surely, is that the U.S. is in the process of dealing al-Qaeda a crippling blow. In his April testimony before Congress, General Pertaeus stated that "the tenacious pursuit of AQI, together with AQI's loss of local support in many areas, has substantially reduced its capabilities, numbers, and freedom of movement." But Pertraeus simultaneously cautioned that defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq would require, inter alia, "major operations by coalition and Iraqi conventional forces" and "a sophisticated intelligence effort," precisely the type of actions that a precipitous withdrawal of troops would make impossible. To think that one can successfully target al-Qaeda and retreat from its chosen battlefield is a dangerous illusion.

Of course, the success against al-Qaeda is itself a direct result of the "surge" strategy that John McCain was among the first to champion. That would be the same strategy that, when introduced by President Bush in 2007, was derided by Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out." Democrats were not nearly as charitable. Even today the surge doesn't lack for detractors. The Times' Bai, echoing a familiar Democratic claim, laments that "American leaders are talking yet again about transferring responsibility for the war to local forces and the police, but Iraqization doesn't seem to be faring a whole lot better than Vietnamization did." As evidence, Bai notes that "last month, some 1,000 Iraqi troops deserted during a crucial battle in Basra."

It's not to downplay the inadequacies of Iraqi armed forces to point out that this criticism misses the bigger picture. Earlier this week, for instance, a major newspaper reported that "forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have largely quieted [Basra], to the initial surprise and growing delight of many inhabitants who only a month ago shuddered under deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and Shiite militias." The "principal factor" for the improved security situation, according to Basra residents, "is the deployment of 33,000 members of the Iraqi security forces." The paper that published the report, interestingly, was Bai's own New York Times.

In light of these recent achievements, McCain's insistence that "the surge is succeeding" looks less like "intransigence" on the senator's part and more like sober realism. That doesn't mean the senator will win the election. But it does suggest that on the pressing question of Iraq and the terrorism threat more broadly, John McCain has already won the argument.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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