In this new installment of Foreign Policy Watch, Rachel Kleinfeld and Thomas M. Donnelly discuss what the presidential candidates are saying ab...

In this new installment of Foreign Policy Watch, Rachel Kleinfeld and Thomas M. Donnelly discuss what the presidential candidates are saying about Iraq.


Ah, the latest in the endless mudslinging on Iraq. I turn off the TV whenever the subject comes up – there is nothing new under the sun, and certainly nothing new in John McCain acting as if he alone understands the national security situation there.

McCain does know about national security – circa 1970. Unfortunately, he is rather behind in how to keep America safe in the 21st century. And by ignoring reality in Iraq, he leaves America in a vulnerable, dangerous position.

McCain wants us to stay in Iraq until – well, who knows how long? But even if we wanted to do stay, we cannot: We are losing key captains and majors at an alarming rate. These are the junior officers who have learned how to fight a counterinsurgency, and they are streaming out of the military in record numbers – the military expects a dearth until 2013.

Meanwhile, our troop recruitment has been maintained only by drastically lowering standards, so that our high-quality professional military is now being mixed with ex-felons and individuals scoring less than 30 percent on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. That is no way to run a counterinsurgency. We will feel the effects in poor ground-level decisions with strategic repercussions. What’s more, overstretching our military has left us open to challengers who know we lack the strength to respond. Russia, for instance, knew it could invade Georgia with impunity because we could not even mount a symbolic show of force. Militarily, we cannot maintain the war in Iraq, even if we wanted to.

McCain is also wrong on whether we should want to. A year or two ago, I actually agreed with his position: chaos engulfed that country and leaving would have had serious national security and moral repercussions. But we are in a different place. The surge worked to calm the country – it did not work to encourage Iraqi politicians to make the resource sharing decisions they need to create lasting peace. Barack Obama is betting that only by leaving can America pressure Iraqi leaders to make those tough decisions. As long as we stay, Iraqi politicians can keep punting, knowing the United States is providing a security blanket. On understanding the Iraqi mentality, Obama is certainly right.

But it is on al-Qaida in Iraq that McCain is most dangerously wrong. Al-Qaida can best be seen as three entities: a sophisticated senior leadership contingent on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan that launched 9/11 and runs training camps for jihadists worldwide; a branding operation in which the Qaida name is lent to other terrorist groups that share similar goals; and an ideological movement that inspires unconnected malcontents toward terrorism through online training and writings.

It is in Afghanistan that the center of the terrorist network lies – it is that senior leadership with the skills to mount 9/11 whom we must capture and kill. Cut off the head, and the other parts will slowly wither. Al-Qaida in Iraq is just a franchise operation. But the techniques jihadists are learning to use against our troops in Iraq are being imported back into Afghanistan. In other words, Iraq is providing a training center for terrorists to learn how to successfully attack American troops trying to fight the central battle against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Under the false flag of national security, McCain advocates continuing a course that could cost us the war on terror, will keep Iraq from stabilizing politically and is decimating our military. That passed for national security during John McCain’s Vietnam era. But it didn’t work then, and it will not work today.

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Rachel Kleinfeld


In the end, it’s about Iraq. Sure, pocketbook and social issues matter, but the president does not command the economy or the mores of the American people. For Barack Obama, the clear call to withdraw from Iraq was the sole policy difference with Hillary Clinton; the rest was personality. For John McCain, the clear call to stay the course was the rallying point that brought his candidacy back from the graveyard.

Thus the presidential contest remains, most centrally, a contest to define the Iraq narrative, both in content and meaning. To Obama, it was a mistake from the start and a strategic sideshow that diverted American attention from finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

To McCain, Iraq was the central front in the struggle against Islamic extremism and in what we have come to call “the long war” to build a more liberal and stable order in the greater Middle East. So when the candidates made back-to-back appearances before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, the Iraq debate was the lead item in both candidates speeches, elbowing aside any discussion of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and even the necessary kowtowing on the subject of veterans benefits.

McCain spoke on Monday and went right at it: “Though victory in Iraq is finally in sight, a great deal still depends on the decisions and good judgment of the next president ... The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines.” The success of the Iraq surge has reinforced McCain’s belief in his own judgment and the possibility of victory.

Obama isn’t backing down from the narrative of trying to minimize the consequences of what he sees as an Iraq defeat. To him the surge was a costly failure: “We have lost over 1,000 American lives and spent billions of dollars since the surge began, but Iraq’s leaders still haven’t made hard compromises or substantial investments in rebuilding their country.” Echoing the line long ago advanced by Carl Levin, the Democratic senator from Michigan and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Barack Obama argues that a redeployment from Iraq within 16 months is the only way to “press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.”

It was also revealing to note where the speeches sought sources of authority for their arguments. McCain cited Gen. David Petraeus and “our troops on the ground when they say, as they have on my many trips to Iraq, Let us win. Just let us win.”

Obama noted that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, has embraced his 16-month withdrawal timetable. How the candidates interpret the larger strategic meaning of Iraq uncovers an even deeper divide. McCain sees Iraq as one theater – the central theater – among many in the long war. Underlying that analysis is a traditional understanding of geopolitical realities: Iraq is an inherently strong and oil-rich nation in the Arab heartland (a view shared, as it happens, by Osama bin Laden).

Obama sees Afghanistan and the tribal areas that have been al-Qaida sanctuaries as the key front. While he realizes that these may be inherently poor and powerless regions in the traditional sense, he still sees the struggle as a “war on terrorism” and al-Qaida in particular. In sum, we have a choice between the broad and narrow interpretations of what the war is.

Americans haven’t quite decided which of these Iraq narratives they prefer, which is why the presidential race is essentially a tie. According to a Reuters/Zogby poll released Wednesday morning, John McCain has overtaken Barack Obama. Americans prefer commanders in chief who exhibit clarity and courage rather than nuance and intellect, Dwight Eisenhower to Adlai Stevenson. That’s an advantage for John McCain.

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Thomas M. Donnelly

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Aug. 21
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared on

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