Politics & Policy

Losing Side

Sen. John McCain is getting upbraided by the great and good for supposedly impugning Barack Obama’s patriotism and all but accusing him of betraying his country.

McCain has said of Obama’s opposition to the surge that “Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a campaign.” Joe Klein deemed it “as intemperate a personal attack as I’ve ever heard a major-party candidate make in a presidential campaign.” “Out of bounds,” ruled Jonathan Alter. Sen. Chuck Hagel pronounced on Face the Nation that McCain “is treading on some very thin ground,” and warned against a campaign based on “‘You’re less patriotic than me.’” The Washington Post voiced its disapproval and left-wing blogger Josh Marshall called it “close to an accusation of treason.”

McCain’s charge is undeniably a tough one; the question is whether it’s true.

There’s no way to see into Obama’s heart, but the evidence suggests McCain is correct. As has been ably documented by Peter Wehner, Obama’s position on the war dramatically hardened with the onset of his presidential campaign. Once, he had opposed deadlines for withdrawal and cutting off funding for the troops. No more. He insisted on a plan for pulling out combat troops by March 2008 that would have lost the war, and as the primary campaign dragged on, even talked of a more rapid withdrawal. That Obama was to Hillary Clinton’s left on the war was a crucial ingredient in his primary victory.

Perhaps Obama had finally decided the war was hopeless just as he was announcing his candidacy. If so, he misread the war in a way that would have had catastrophic consequences had he been president. As time passed, it became obvious that the surge was working. But Obama determinedly refused to credit the surge or acknowledge the new conditions in Iraq. Perhaps this was because he was so ideologically rigid and blinkered that he couldn’t accommodate reality, but if we’ve learned anything about Obama in recent weeks it’s that he’s flexible (and politically shrewd) to a fault. He knew he couldn’t speak well of the surge because it was anathema to his left-wing base. So he couldn’t support the strategy that was defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq and winning the war — for political reasons.

Now that the primaries are over the political imperatives are different. Obama has softened his support for a 16-month timetable for withdrawal, and in an interview in the latest Newsweek almost sounds like McCain in the emphasis he puts on conditions in Iraq in determining the role of U.S. troops. Obama thus tacks to the center. But he can’t alienate his supporters on the left or commit another “flip-flop” on a major issue, so — against all evidence — he maintains that he was right to oppose the surge even though it has worked. His political tap-dance on the war continues apace.

It’s easy now to pretend that the surge and its success was inevitable. It wasn’t. President Bush had to implement it against stiff political headwinds, made all the stiffer by the likes of Barack Obama. If Obama had had his way, we would have lost in Iraq. But he positioned himself exactly right in the Democratic primaries. This is shameful. The disgrace is not John McCain’s in pointing it out, but Barack Obama’s in having been so wrong and letting politics so influence his mistaken position on the war.


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