Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Making sense of John McCain's confusion on Iraq


If there is any fixed position in John McCain's policy agenda, it's that we must never, ever, set a timetable for leaving Iraq. He regularly flogs Barack Obama for proposing to withdraw by the summer of 2010. So it was a surprise to hear him say Monday, when asked if our troops might depart in the next two years, "Oh, I think they could be largely withdrawn, as I've said."

I guess that makes it unanimous. This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he's amenable to bidding the U.S. goodbye on Obama's schedule. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated his forces will also be heading home soon.

Even President Bush has now come around to establishing a "time horizon" for "the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq." In other words: "We're going to leave, but it's none of your business when."

Despite creeping toward withdrawal himself, McCain continues to lambaste Obama for setting a timetable. But if the current policy is the stunning success depicted by McCain, it should be eminently practical to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis by the middle of 2010. If it is impossible to do that, more than seven years after the occupation began, how can McCain say the existing strategy is working?

The Arizona senator sounded frustrated this week, insisting that Obama was "completely wrong" in opposing the Bush administration's escalation of the war in January 2007. "The fact is, if we had done what Sen. Obama wanted to do, we would have lost," he declared. "And we would have faced a wider war. And we would have had greater problems in Afghanistan and the entire region."

What McCain omits is that if he himself had been right all the times before 2007 that he said things were going fine, no surge would have been needed. He's like a weatherman who forecasts clear skies every day and, when the rain finally lets up after a week, expects a standing ovation for his accuracy.

If we had done what Obama wanted to do back in 2002, we would not have lost—because we would not have invaded Iraq to start with. We would not have suffered 4,100 dead and 30,000 wounded or burned through hundreds of billions of dollars.

We also would not have diverted ourselves from the correct focus of the war on terrorism. "Greater problems in Afghanistan and the entire region"? Apparently McCain hasn't noticed that we got those in spite of the surge, or more likely because of it.

The troop escalation has not been the complete failure Obama suggested it would be, but it has fallen far short of the triumph claimed by Republicans. The level of violence, though down from the very worst months of the war, remains at levels comparable to 2005—which were considered awful at the time.

Iraqi civilians died at a higher rate in the first four months of this year than in the same period of 2005. The number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces is about the same. Here is McCain's definition of success: returning to a pace of bloodshed that was once regarded as intolerable.

Even the progress made in the last 18 months is only partly attributable to the additional American forces. Equally important was the decision of Sunni militias to turn against Al Qaida in Iraq. McCain insists this shift was only made possible by the surge—when, in fact, it happened several months before. Does he not know what really happened? Or does he not care?

Also contributing to the decline in sectarian violence was that by 2007, the sectarian violence had already achieved its main goal: driving Sunnis out of Shiite neighborhoods and vice versa. Of the 5 million Iraqis who fled their homes in the last five years, only 30,000 have returned.

The refugee crisis is just one of the results of a war that McCain has supported all along. The surge didn't provide a remedy to that or the many other afflictions that plague Iraq. For good or ill, though, we have probably achieved about all we can achieve with the means available.

That's obvious to most Americans and most Iraqis. Once in a while, the realization even dawns on John McCain. But he lies down until it passes.