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That Trivial Matter Of Whether The War Was A Mistake

Bill Kristol thinks everybody is being too critical of John McCain's now-infamous speech Tuesday night. Maybe McCain didn't sound particularly inspiring, Kristol explains in his latest New York Times column, but McCain did have an important, positive message to deliver about his candidacy. While Obama is promising "change we can believe in," Kristol says, McCain is "a leader we can believe in."

It's a message, needless to say, Kristol finds convincing:

Let Obama be about belief. McCain’s message is that he’s a leader we can trust, based on a record of many years, and that his character has been tested.

Discussing the surge of troops and the new counterinsurgency strategy of early 2007, McCain pointed out, “Senator Obama opposed the new strategy. ...Yet in the last year we have seen the success of that plan as violence has fallen to a four-year low. ... None of this progress would have happened had we not changed course over a year ago. And all of this progress would be lost if Senator Obama had his way. ”

Early 2007 was as close as we’re going to get to a commander in chief moment for Senators McCain and Obama. They had to make a judgment in a difficult real-world situation--not on the healed planet of Obama’s dreams. With the Iraq war going badly, McCain took the lead in calling for a change in military strategy and a surge of troops. Obama, by contrast, went along with his party in urging withdrawal. Now, 18 months later, McCain seems pretty clearly to have been right.

Putting aside the question of who was right on the surge, is early 2007 really "as close as we're going to get to a commander in chief moment" for the two candidates? It seems to me there was at least one other such moment, back in 2002. That would be the moment when McCain decided to support the war and Obama decided to oppose it.

Why ignore that decision? Maybe public opinion has something to do with it.

While polls show most Americans still think the war is going badly, opinion about the surge itself has been more positive. In the March CBS-New York Times poll, for example, a plurality of Americans--42 percent--said the surge "is making the situation in Iraq better." Just 13 percent said it was making the situation "worse" while 34 percent said it was having no impact.

There is no such ambiguity about public sentiment over the original decision to wage war. In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, 62 percent of respondents said that going to war with Iraq was "wrong." Just 33 percent said it was "right." And, from what I can tell, every other survey in recent memory has yielded similar results.

(You can check out all the recent results at PollingReport.)

--Jonathan Cohn