Nuri al-Maliki and the Death of McCain's Iraq Argument

Nuri al-Maliki was once dismissed as a powerless politician with a fleeting grip on his office. Now, though, the Iraqi prime minister is apparently strong enough to change the fundamental terms of the war debate in the U.S. presidential election in a way that dramatically improves Barack Obama’s standing on the issue.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Maliki began hinting publicly that he’d favor some kind of timeline for the departure of American troops in Iraq. Then last weekend he went further – much further – telling Der Spiegel that he wanted the Americans out “as soon as possible” and that Obama’s call for a 16-month phased redeployment of U.S. forces “would be the right time frame for a withdrawal.”

Blindsided, the White House then engaged in some rather comical semantics about the supposed difference between “timetables” and “time horizons” and Mr. Maliki’s spokesman issued a statement – through the Pentagon’s Middle East command – that suggested his words had somehow been inaccurately translated (even though the translator was employed by Mr. Maliki – not the magazine). But few bought into his backtracking and finally the same spokesman announced that the “Iraqi vision” is for a U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2010 – just a few months later than Mr. Obama has been proposing.

Almost instantly, this jarring turn of events demolishes two of the major lines of attack that John McCain and his fellow Republicans have been employing against Obama.

One is their charge that Mr. Obama has been has been flip-flopping – or positioning himself to flip-flop somewhere down the line – on his Iraq position.

Earlier this month, Mr. Obama talked about his 16-month withdrawal vision as a goal whose implementation would be “dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability.” Noting his plans to visit Iraq and meet with U.S. commanders there, he said he would “continue to refine” the specifics of his withdrawal plan.

This actually wasn’t inconsistent with his rhetoric throughout the campaign, but the Mr. McCain forces jumped at Obama’s use of wiggle words like “refine” to argue that he was flip-flopping on his 16-month commitment. The notion that Obama was waffling on Iraq then dominated news coverage for several days, a clear score for a G.O.P. operation that had much luck in 2004 tarring their opponent as a spineless waffler.

This flip-flopping charge actually posed a threat to Mr. Obama on a second front, since it involved his prime vulnerability: concerns that he lacks the wisdom and seasoning of Mr. McCain to confront national security matters. Mr. Obama, in the Republicans’ telling, wasn’t merely switching a political position– he was acknowledging that he’d been wrong on a question of war and moving toward an admission that Mr. McCain’s prescription of a more open-ended commitment was the correct and responsible course. It was, according to the G.O.P.’s talking points, the perfect demonstration of Mr. Obama’s naiveté.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Barack Obama should change his plan in Iraq,” said Representative Eric Cantor, a top McCain supporter. “His old plan is the wrong way to go.”

In the face of this assault, Mr. Obama maintained that his position had been and would remain consistent. Mr. McCain’s side countered that this posture wouldn’t and couldn’t last long – sooner or later Mr. Obama, the foreign policy lightweight, would be compelled to admit that his withdrawal calls didn’t mesh with the progress on the ground.

But now, the argument seems settled: Mr. Maliki has publicly declared that this progress wouldn’t be threatened by a relatively speedy withdrawal and that such a withdrawal would be welcomed – if not demanded – by his government and the Iraq public. Moreover, he has endorsed the use of a timetable as a mechanism to help bring that withdrawal about. Mr. McCain’s cries that Mr. Obama’s position is irresponsible because it ignores the advice of military have been defanged. It was one thing to call Mr. Obama naïve about the dangers of withdrawal; it’s quite another to level the same charge against the prime minister of Iraq.

Mr. McCain is now left to ask voters to play connect-the-dots, awarding him credit for supporting the “surge” that has, he would argue, made Mr. Maliki’s emboldened stance possible.

The problem there is that the public is just as tired of the Iraq war now as it was before the surge. Consistently, two-thirds of voters tell pollsters that they don’t think it should have been waged in the first place. At some point a few years ago, the masses stopped believing that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11 and started itching for an exit for the troops.

Mr. McCain retained his credibility on the issue in part by arguing that ending the war the wrong way would be cataclysmic, no matter what voters thought of the war itself. He can still say that, but now he’s not just arguing with Barack Obama. He’s arguing with the leader of Iraq.

Nuri al-Maliki and the Death of McCain's Iraq Argument