Most pundits have justly mocked or written off McCain’s 2013 speech.  After all, it contains no explanation of how we’re going to get from here to his vision of 2013, so there’s not much substance.  However, I’m concerned about how it could frame the debate over Iraq.

McCain is selling us a vision of success in Iraq.  That is something that people want, almost as much as they want assurances that US troops will be out of Iraq soon.  The question is how Democrats attack this vision.  Naturally, they can say that McCain has given no specifics about how we’re getting that outcome.  This is a fair attack, and one that can probably be made to stick–I doubt many people have just now turned around and said “wow, we can win.  Iraq will be peaceful in 2013.”

But this kind of attack isn’t enough.  By talking about the situation in 2013, McCain is shifting the debate to the question of what Iraq looks like in the future, and the challenge for a Democrat becomes to say what their plan will do to Iraq.  There are two ways a Democrat can go, and neither one looks good.

First, a Democrat could say “I have a plan to get United States troops out, while stabilizing Iraq.”  If they do this, then the debate becomes one about managerial competence, much like the debate in 2004.  While antipathy towards Republicans might win this debate, it involves giving up the advantage of being the anti-war party.  Moreover, I think it is fundamentally dishonest–no one can promise this.

Second, there is the brutally honest approach.  In truth, I think the United States presence in Iraq won’t ever stabilize the region, at least not unless the timescale is measured in decades.  All we do is postpone the inevitable blowup, but we don’t make that blowup any less severe.  All that we do by staying is continue to suffer casualties without changing the long-term prognosis in Iraq.  So we might as well adopt a policy that gets us out as quickly as possible.  The downsides of this policy are tempered by the realization that it’s possible that staying in Iraq will make the eventual blowup even worse.  Looking backwards, many of the worst case scenarios (civil war, sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing) that were predicted after withdrawal have already come to pass.

This second approach is too pessimistic to be the platform of a major political party.  It’s also an overstatement: clearly, America’s actions in Iraq can improve or hurt the situation.  There will be better and worse withdrawal plans, and better or worse times to withdraw.  But I do think it’s right that we will not be able to make a huge difference in the outcome.  Moreover, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve got good knowledge of how various actions we take will pan out.

In any case, the approach that the Democrats will take must be somewhere between the first and the second options.  It’s not viable to give up the idea that we’re the anti-war party, nor is it viable to just admit that Iraq will be a disaster.  So the Democratic party has to find some way to steer between the two extremes.  Any coherent picture involves giving up something that people value, and dealing with nuance in a way that most political positions don’t require.

I don’t have a good feel for how the public will react to all of this.  It’s possible that in the next sixth months, the Democrats can win just by being the anti-war party.  It may be that McCain’s assurances sound so hollow that this becomes a non-issue.  However, my gut reaction is that there’s danger here.


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