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Voting for Commander in Chief By: Frederick W. Kagan
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It would be hard to design a better test for the job of commander in chief than the real-life test senators John McCain and Barack Obama have undergone in the last two years. As the situation in Iraq deteriorated during 2006 and the war reached its most critical moment, both senators served on national security committees: McCain on Armed Services, Obama on Foreign Relations. From those positions, with access to classified situation reports as well as the public testimony and private advice of those who knew the situation in Iraq best, each man reached an understanding of the facts on the ground and the interests at stake. And each proposed a strategy. It was as close as a presidential candidate could get to showing how he would respond to a national security crisis without already being in the White House.

Both men's proposals are a matter of public record, available on the Internet. McCain set forth his in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on January 5, 2007 (at an event marking the release of AEI's "Choosing Victory," which I wrote, outlining a strategy like the one Bush later ordered). Obama presented his in the "Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007 " (S. 433), which he introduced in the Senate on January 30. We also know the strategy the president chose--the surge of forces he announced on January 10, very similar to what McCain described--and the outcome it has brought.

McCain's recommendations drew on his conversations with commanders on the ground in Iraq, where he traveled in late December 2006. McCain called for a minimum of three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and at least one in Anbar province. Their mission, he said, would be

to implement the thus far elusive 'hold' element of the military's clear-hold-build strategy, to maintain security in cleared areas, to protect the population and critical infrastructure, and to impose the government's authority--essential elements of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy.

McCain cited the "excellent" track record of U.S. troops in stopping sectarian violence. He noted that, "where American soldiers have deployed to areas in turmoil, including Baghdad neighborhoods, the violence has ceased almost immediately." And he was specific about the tasks troops would perform: "establish local outposts; forge relationships with local leaders, which by the way is proceeding in Anbar province; build intelligence networks; engage in economic reconstruction activities; oversee other employment-generating projects; and wean the populace off their reliance on militias for safety." All this the Americans would do "in cooperation with the Iraqi forces until such time as the Iraqis can do it on their own."

In his speech, McCain predicted what the surge would achieve. First, it would cause "more casualties and extra hardships for our brave fighting men and women." But then it would bring violence under control. This would "pave the way for a political settlement." McCain went on, "Once the government wields greater authority, however, Iraqi leaders must take significant steps on their own. These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, a more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that will bring Sunnis into the government, and a large increase in employment-generating economic projects."

McCain acknowledged "many, many mistakes since 2003" and the difficulty of reversing them. Still, the consequences of defeat would be "catastrophic." His bottom line: "By surging troops and bringing security to Baghdad and other areas, we will give the Iraqis and their partners the best possible chances to succeed."

Barack Obama's approach differed from McCain's in its basis as well as its goals and methods. Not having traveled to Iraq since January 2006--before the Samarra Mosque bombing, the explosion of sectarian violence, and the two failed U.S. attempts to quell that violence--Obama relied on others' testimony in assessing the situation on the ground. His bill quoted a skeptical Colin Powell and an even more skeptical CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid. Abizaid said he had discussed the usefulness of a surge of U.S. troops with "every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey," and all had agreed that a surge of troops would not "add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq." Worse, it would "prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."

Given this analysis, Obama's legislation forbade the surge and ordered most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the spring of 2008. It said,

The redeployment of the Armed Forces under this section shall be substantial, shall occur in a gradual manner, and shall be executed at a pace to achieve the goal of the complete redeployment of all United States combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, consistent with the expectation of the Iraq Study Group, if all the matters set forth in subsection (b)(1)(B) are not met by such date, subject to the exceptions for retention of forces for force protection, counter-terrorism operations, training of Iraqi forces, and other purposes as contemplated by subsection (g).

In the media, Obama repeatedly predicted that the surge would fail. The day the president announced the new policy, Obama told Larry King he "did not see anything" in the president's surge that would "make a significant dent in the sectarian violence." The same day, he said on MSNBC,

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse. I think it takes pressure off the Iraqis to arrive at the sort of political accommodation that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there. So I am going to actively oppose the president's proposal.... I think he is wrong, and I think the American people believe he's wrong.

Four days later, Obama told Face the Nation, "We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war. And until we acknowledge that reality--we can send 15,000 more troops, 20,000 more troops, 30,000 more troops, I don't know any expert on the region or any military officer that I've spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground."

So what happened? President Bush ordered the surge. He committed an additional five Army brigades and two Marine battalions to Iraq with the mission of protecting the Iraqi population. In accomplishing this, U.S. forces partnered with Iraqi troops precisely as McCain had suggested, helping them "hold" areas that they had jointly "cleared." Meanwhile, American troops established bonds with local leaders, as McCain had said they would, which led to the expansion of the "Anbar Awakening" movement throughout central Iraq. And U.S. troops developed numerous economic and infrastructure projects that provided jobs.

Sectarian violence stopped almost completely. Al Qaeda in Iraq was dealt what CIA director Michael Hayden now assesses as "a near strategic defeat." This allowed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to commit Iraqi Security Forces directly against the last remaining illegal militias in Iraq, clearing them out of Basra and Sadr City--weaning "the populace off their reliance on militias for safety," as McCain had put it. American casualties initially rose, as McCain had warned they would, but then fell dramatically: Last month was the lowest-casualty month of the entire war.

Once violence was under control, the Iraqis began to make serious political progress, as McCain had predicted. They passed almost all of the "benchmark" legislation that Obama's bill would have required.

What would have happened if Obama's bill had passed? There is no way to know for sure, but it seems likely that, facing less resistance, Al Qaeda in Iraq would have continued to gain strength, the fragile Iraqi Security Forces would have collapsed, as would the fragile Iraqi government, militias would have flourished--and the United States would have departed under fire, accepting a humiliating defeat in the war against al Qaeda that would have reverberated globally.

For any voter trying to choose between the two candidates for commander in chief, there is no better test than this: When American strategy in a critical theater was up for grabs, John McCain proposed a highly unpopular and risky path, which he accurately predicted could lead to success. Barack Obama proposed a popular and politically safe route that would have led to an unnecessary and debilitating American defeat at the hands of al Qaeda.

The two men brought different backgrounds to the test, of course. In January 2007, McCain had been a senator for 20 years and had served in the military for 23 years. Obama had been a senator for 2 years and before that was a state legislator, lawyer, and community organizer. But neither presidential candidates nor the commander in chief gets to choose the tests that history brings. Once in office, the one elected must perform.

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).

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