Surge focus is a losing strategy for McCain

July 24, 2008|By Jonah Goldberg

"Senator Obama didn't support the surge, wanted to pull out, said that it would fail. I supported it when it was the toughest thing to do. I believe that my record on national security and keeping this country safe is there. And the American people will examine our records, and I will win."

That's John McCain explaining why he'll win.

He's wrong.

He's leading a loud chorus of conservatives and Republicans desperate to make the surge the defining issue of the campaign.

It's understandable why so many Republicans see the surge as an ideal political battleground. Outside foreign policy, Mr. McCain's standing with the GOP base is shaky. The party doesn't have many policy wins to brag about. And Sen. Barack Obama doesn't have much of a record to attack. Also, many hawks see the surge as vindication that they were right about the feasibility of the Iraq invasion from the beginning.

Whatever the merits of all that, there's a problem. As political analysis, it's nonsense.

Yes, Mr. McCain heroically pushed for the surge when the war was at its most unpopular point. Even more impressive, he favored a change in strategy back when the war was popular. That's great stuff for Mr. McCain's biographers. But the Catch-22 is that the more the surge succeeds, the more advantageous it is for Mr. Obama.

Voters don't care about the surge; they care about the war. Americans want it to be over - and in a way they can be proud of.

Richard Nixon didn't win in 1968 by second-guessing Lyndon Johnson about the mess in Vietnam; he ran on getting us out with honor. Mr. McCain is great when talking about honor, but the getting-us-out part is where he gets tongue-tied. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, talks about leaving Iraq as though Americans don't care about honor. That may have worked in the early primaries, but it won't in the general election. Americans don't like to lose wars.

Politically, the surge is a bit like the Supreme Court's recent decision affirming the constitutional right to own a gun. Mr. Obama's position on gun rights, a miasma of murky equivocation, would hurt him if gun control were a big issue this year. It isn't, thanks to the high court's ruling. That's a huge boon.

The surge has done likewise with the war. If it were going worse, Mr. McCain's Churchillian rhetoric would match reality better. But with sectarian violence nearly gone, al-Qaida in Iraq almost totally routed and even Sadrist militias seemingly neutralized, the stakes of withdrawal seem low enough for Americans to feel comfortable voting for Mr. Obama. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's support for an American troop drawdown pushes the perceived stakes even lower.

Although the economy will dominate this election, Mr. McCain can still press his advantage on foreign policy. But not with I-told-you-sos. Rearguing the surge is almost as counterproductive as rearguing the war itself. Elections are about the future.

Mr. McCain doesn't need to explain why he'd be a better commander in chief. Voters already acknowledge his superior judgment on foreign policy by huge margins. He needs to explain why, going forward, we'll need that judgment.

Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail is

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