Before Barack Obama went to Iraq, a pundit consensus was congealing. He'd have to suck it up and admit he was wrong about the troop surge.
With Republicans panting at the prospect of an Obama U-turn on a key plank of foreign policy, the Petraeus meeting promises a moment of genuine political theatre that is likely to be absent from the "grip'n'grin" photo opportunities lined up with Gordon Brown, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Pope Benedict and other leaders in Europe.
"I guess the question is, if indeed he's going to Iraq and nothing that he sees will change or impact his decision-making on this, then why is he going?" asked Brian Rogers, a McCain campaign spokesman.
Answer: He's going to get the photo ops, say that the surge worked, and deny that he was wrong about it.
"These kinds of hypotheticals are very difficult," he said. "Hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is, at that time, we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one that I just disagreed with, and one that I continue to disagree with—is to look narrowly at Iraq and not focus on these broader issues."
The McCain campaign has pounced, but what else was it going to do? Jonah Goldberg, I think, gets the politics exactly right.
Politically, the surge is a bit like the Supreme Court's recent decision affirming the constitutional right to own a gun. Obama's position on gun rights, a miasma of murky equivocation, would hurt him if gun control were a big issue this year. It isn't, thanks to the high court's ruling. That's a huge boon.
The surge has done likewise with the war. If it were going worse, McCain's Churchillian rhetoric would match reality more. But with sectarian violence nearly gone, Al Qaeda in Iraq almost totally routed and even Shiite Sadrist militias seemingly neutralized, the stakes of withdrawal seem low enough for Americans to feel comfortable voting for Obama. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's support for an American troop drawdown undoubtedly pushes the perceived stakes even lower.
Matt Yglesias seems mystified that McCain can wring anything out of this; his commenters seem gloomy that "the media" will make the debate about the 2007 surge vote, not whether the war was right. The important thing about the media, though, is that fewer people are paying attention to them. A debate over how right McCain was/how wrong Obama was over this aspect of the war is not going to subsume a debate over when to leave Iraq. I don't see any of this redounding to the benefit of John McCain. McCain's goading Obama to make this trip stands tall and proud as one of the dumbest blunders of the campaign. He couldn't have helped the Democrat more if he'd challenged him to a slam dunk contest. And lo and behold, Maliki is shorting McCain stock as fast as he can move it.