by hilzoy

I've been thinking about the Maliki statement and its implications. Here's my take.

McCain's entire rationale, as a candidate, turns on Iraq and related issues, like terrorism and (to a lesser extent) Iran. What else is he going to run on? His grasp of the economy? His health care proposals? The widespread popularity of the Republican brand? He can't even run on the rest of foreign policy: McCain's approach to foreign policy has always lacked any kind of integrative vision; he treats problems in isolation from one another. This means two things: first, McCain really doesn't have an overarching foreign policy vision, and second, for him, Iraq has always been The Big Thing, and as a result, everything else got slighted.

(Minor factoid: the Issues page on McCain's website doesn't have an entry for foreign policy. An Iraq page, yes; likewise, pages on the Space Program and Second Amendment Rights. But foreign policy? Nothing.)

On Iraq, McCain begins with a huge disadvantage: he advocated the invasion of Iraq, which most Americans feel was a mistake. (He's always urging voters to look back and consider who showed good judgment on the surge, but he doesn't want them to look too far back, lest they find themselves thinking about who showed good judgment on the invasion.) He therefore has to argue something like this: now that we're in this mess, we need someone we can trust, someone who will be able to manage this catastrophe as well as possible. McCain is solid. Obama is untested, inexperienced, risky. There was always a problem with this story: namely, it involves saying that we should trust McCain, who made the wrong call on invasion, over Obama, who got it right. But sowing doubts is pretty much all McCain has.

This got a lot harder last week, before Maliki's comments.

First the Bush administration started appeasing negotiating with Iran, as Obama had suggested; then McCain essentially adopted Obama's position on Afghanistan; then the Bush administration agreed to what they called a "general time horizon"for withdrawing troops. (Wait: now it's "Joint aspirational time horizons"!) McCain and Bush seemed to be adopting Obama's positions all over the place. For a risky, inexperienced novice, Obama seemed to have gotten a lot of things right. And for an experienced, serious old hand with a command of foreign policy, McCain seemed to be spending a lot of time playing catch-up. And every time Obama gets to say, in effect, 'Hi, John! What took you so long?', McCain's only winning message gets that much weaker.

(McCain was also starting to undercut his own message. Both his budget plan and his Afghanistan plan relied on troops being withdrawn from Iraq. A lot of troops. McCain was already counting on people not noticing this.)

So even before Maliki said a word, McCain was in a pretty tough position. Two weeks ago, he had some pretty sharp differences with Obama. McCain wanted to stay in Iraq indefinitely, and cast any idea of leaving as dishonorable, as a way of risking the gains of the surge in order to embrace defeat. Obama wanted to withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. By two days ago, McCain was left with basically two messages: (a) timetables would be a disaster, and Obama's embrace of them just shows how naive he is; and (b) McCain got the surge right and Obama got it wrong. It's a pretty weak foundation for a candidacy.

It was against this backdrop that Maliki comes out in favor of Obama's proposal to withdraw combat troops from Iraq in 16 months (though he is careful not to endorse Obama.) McCain has to call Obama naive on Iraq. But that is a lot harder to do if Maliki agrees with Obama. It's hard to say that Maliki is insufficiently familiar with the facts on the ground. It's hard to call him naive. And whatever you think of Maliki's motives, it's also a lot more complicated to make the case that he doesn't know or care what's best for his country. In Presidential elections, uncomplicated cases are key. "Obama has only been in the Senate for three years; he doesn't have the experience to get Iraq right" is an uncomplicated case. There is no such uncomplicated explanation for Maliki's being wrong.

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Worse, lot of the more obvious ways of responding to Maliki's statement are fraught with danger for McCain. Responding that Maliki either doesn't know what he's talking about or is somehow untrustworthy and bad directly undercuts our reasons for staying in Iraq. We are there in support of the Maliki government, which we are hoping will become capable of running the country without our presence. The more ignorant, untrustworthy, or otherwise bad Maliki is, the less likely it is that he will succeed, and the less clear it is why we should try to help him.

Saying, as McCain has, that Maliki only supports a timetable for political reasons is almost as bad, since it rather obviously implies that the Iraqi people really want us to leave. (As, in fact, they do.) Again, this raises the question: what on earth are we doing there? If the Iraqi people want us out, and their Prime Minister is asking for timetables, why not just take 'yes' for an answer?

If the Iraqi people want us out, we have two choices. First, we leave. As McCain said four years ago, "I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people." McCain does not seem to have seriously considered this option, which would deprive him of yet another distinction between himself and Obama.

Second, we continue to occupy Iraq whether the Iraqi people and their government want us to or not. We have not paid much attention to the wishes of the Iraqi people for some time now -- in fact, I'm always struck, listening to Bush and McCain, by the way in which they consistently describe the question how long we stay in Iraq as one to be answered solely by them, in consultation with the commanders on the ground, as though Iraq's government and its people had no say in the matter at all.

This has, of course, always been true. This administration has never cared much about what the Iraqi people think. But Maliki's comments might make it clearer to the American people that it's not enough to ask whether a candidate supports staying in Iraq; you need to ask whether he supports staying in Iraq even if the Iraqi government asks us to leave. Asking McCain that question would force him to chose between maintaining our presence in Iraq and maintaining the idea that that presence has something to do with helping the Iraqi people.

Moreover, explaining why it would be OK to override the wishes of the Iraqi government presents yet another problem for McCain. The obvious default position is that when a country's government asks us to withdraw our troops, we should do so. To say that that's not true in a given case, like Iraq, you need to provide some sort of explanation. Part of that explanation would normally be: the government is unrepresentative or dysfunctional or awful in some way, and so its wishes do not carry the weight they would in, say, Switzerland.

But saying something like that about the Iraqi government -- that it doesn't really speak for the Iraqi people, or isn't capable of making its own decisions about Iraqi territorial integrity -- would undercut McCain's claims about progress in Iraq. Again, McCain would have to choose: does he say that Iraq's government has made some real political progress, and is capable of making its own decisions? In that case, he should accept its wishes. Does he say that he can disregard its requests on matters of Iraqi sovereignty? In that case, he undercuts a lot of his claims that the surge has enabled real and lasting progress in Iraq.

As I see it, Maliki's statement is all upside for Obama. It neither poses risks for him nor presents him with problems. But it's a minefield for McCain. And this will, I think, become clearer as time goes on, when people begin to ask him these sorts of questions.

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