Televised debates give candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the issues, as well as communicate their priorities to the nation. In these times, Americans are looking for leaders who comprehend the foreign policy challenges facing our country and have a grasp of how to address them.
To that end, the US military’s most significant course change in the War on Terror, and the dominant fact of our experience in Iraq since early 2007, has been the surge strategy. So, given a chance to test their ideas and proposals, and dispute those of their opponents, where has each candidate made a stand? And how have they discussed that stand in the first two debates?
In the first presidential debate, Sen. John McCain credited the surge for progress in Iraq and left no doubt that he plans to follow through until our objectives are met:
I went to Iraq in 2003 and came back and said, “We’ve got to change this strategy. This strategy requires additional troops, it requires a fundamental change in strategy,” and I fought for it. And finally, we came up with a great general and a strategy that has succeeded.
Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, almost entirely skirted the surge question, accusing McCain of talking about the war as if it had begun in 2007, instead of 2003. But more importantly, when handed a chance to acknowledge the strategic success of the surge, he stopped short, instead saying,
Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families. They have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.
Obama here shows his naiveté. Gen. Petraeus, keenly aware of the interdependent political and security aspects of counterinsurgency, laid out a comprehensive plan for accomplishing objectives that would not only win battles, but help win the war — on both the military and political fronts. For those familiar with military matters, that’s called a strategy.
Of course I’m glad to hear Sen. Obama congratulate America’s warriors for a job well done. I appreciate Sen. Obama’s recognition of the sacrifice of the military and our families. But sweat, blood and tears will not fertilize barren soil; a winning strategy prepares the ground to ensure that our sacrifice bears good fruit.
The surge provided time and space for political progress, and in case Sen. Obama missed it, Iraq recently took two important strides toward becoming a truly independent, stable society. The Iraqi parliament unanimously passed a resolution providing for provincial elections this coming February, and the Shiite-led government has agreed to begin taking responsibility for the “Sons of Iraq” — the Sunni/Shia movement so instrumental in quelling violence in Iraq — by integrating some of them into Iraq’s security forces and helping the rest transition to employed civilian life. In both cases, contentious issues remain and mistakes will be made, but the country is moving forward.
Sen. Obama opposed the surge, even believed that it would be counterproductive. He continued to oppose the new strategy until its success was so obvious that continued flat denials were embarrassing. Recently he admitted that he thought “the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated.” But for Sen. Obama to believe both that, and his comments at the debate, he would have to cynically argue that the surge’s proponents — Sen. McCain most prominently — did not anticipate strategic success, nor even expect to “contain the damage” of previous errors.
Sen. Obama’s running mate, Senator Biden, managed to avoid even mentioning the surge during his debate with Alaska governor Sarah Palin, except to claim that the surge’s principles would not work in Afghanistan. Gov. Palin promptly called out Biden and Obama for being wrong on the surge.