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Iraq: Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

I wanted to sound off on the ongoing national security duel between John McCain and Barack Obama. Two big developments today. In a comprehensive speech in Washington, Obama did something we've not really seen from Bush or McCain: He defines "success" in Iraq, in echoes of the grilling he and other senators gave General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during their most recent testimony on the war.

"At some point, a judgment must be made. Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we don’t have unlimited resources to try to make it one. We are not going to kill every al Qaeda sympathizer, eliminate every trace of Iranian influence, or stand up a flawless democracy before we leave …. True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future – a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge. That is an achievable goal if we pursue a comprehensive plan to press the Iraqis stand up."

Eve's great post from the April hearings foresaw Obama's line of thinking--what can we tolerate leaving in Iraq?--a question with an answer he'll no doubt "refine" further by the end of his planned trip to Iraq.

Secondly, Eli Lake reports that McCain will announce a troop "surge" in Afghanistan. An aide says a speech he'll deliver in New Mexico

will call for an increase in combat troops and the creation of a special Afghanistan tsar to coordinate policy toward the country. "There will be a surge for Afghanistan. It will be moving combat troops in and applying the lessons from Iraq and the strategy that was successful in Iraq and taking that to Afghanistan," this official said.

This is remarkable for two reasons--and says something different about both candidates. Firstly, the McCain surge idea sounds totally political (which doesn't mean it's a bad idea). It effectively undercuts some of Obama's critiques about McCain's committment to the fight in Afghanistan, which he went after in that op-ed yesterday and reprised in today's speech, saying


Senator McCain said – just months ago – that “Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.” I could not disagree more. Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. That’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month. And that’s why, as President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.

Obama then goes ahead and says it's he who wants a surge in Afghanistan, linking it to a broader theme of his national security agenda--an interdisciplinary approach to foreign relations that emphasizes development in weakened states as part of a president's toolkit:

I will send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions – with fewer restrictions – from NATO allies. I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary, with more resources and incentives for American officers who perform these missions. Just as we succeeded in the Cold War by supporting allies who could sustain their own security, we must realize that the 21st century’s frontlines are not only on the field of battle – they are found in the training exercise near Kabul, in the police station in Kandahar, and in the rule of law in Herat.

Obama has been making this case for investing in Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. By calling for a surge in Afghanistan, McCain is essentially agreeing with him. But politically, McCain's move is likely to get equal if not more credit because--wait for it--McCain is calling his plan a "surge" in explicit terms. (Don't knock semantics!) Certainly, McCain's support last month for a plan to station up to 58 bases in Iraq, whether Maliki likes it or not (he doesn't), not to mention all of this "100 years" talk and his raging Manichean bellicosity suggests we won't have additional troops for Afghanistan at the speed we would under Obama's 16-month Iraq withdrawal plan. But I think this framing gives McCain the upper hand. Don't we all remember how well the last "surge" went? And who supported it and who opposed it?

Update: Abridged. Link to McCain's speech calling for an Afghan surge here

--Dayo Olopade