What Will Happen Tuesday

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We already know the political arguments that John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will be making tomorrow when they all get to ask questions of the commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus. The question is whether the proceedings will enlighten the candidates or the American people about the best way to move forward.

For McCain, the political argument is grounded in a vision of the future. If we withdraw our forces, McCain said today in Kansas City, “Al Qaeda in Iraq will proclaim victory and increase its efforts to provoke sectarian tensions in Iraq into a full scale civil war that could descend into genocide and destabilize the Middle East.”

For Clinton and Obama, the political argument will be about the past, when the American people were repeatedly misled about progress, and the present, when Americans continue to pay a steep price in blood and treasure. As Obama said in a statement released today, “John McCain was wrong about the war from the beginning . . . No amount of tough talk will change the Bush-McCain record of poor judgment, or bring us one day closer to ending a war that is not making us safer.” (Clinton says something similar here.)

Within these arguments, we can expect all of the candidates, and their allies, to take pot shots. They will accuse each other of irresponsibility, failed leadership and poor judgement. Petraeus, meanwhile, will present a bunch of statistics to demonstrate measured progress, while minimizing the underlining instability of the situation. If past is prologue, the day will end with a frustrating dearth of actual discussion about the complex situation on the ground and the difficult choices that the next president will face.

For this, I would suggest reading a nine-page briefing paper that was just released by two scholars at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The paper lays out in an almost mathematical grid the strategic interests that the U.S. has in Iraq, and then discusses the effect on those interests of three different strategies—continuing the current policy of unconditional commitment, setting up benchmarks that could lead to withdrawal, and unconditional withdrawal. The thesis of the paper is refreshing in the current binary debate riddle with name-calling. “Rather than debating whether to stay or withdraw, those interested in Iraq would do well to focus on which national interests they hold most dear and how the policies they advocate serve those interests,” the authors write.

They begin with a credible, if dour assessment of the current situation in Iraq. The cost of the current policy is high, they write, the gains of the surge appear tenuous and dependent on forces beyond U.S. control, and after a year, there remains no political solution on the horizon that would allow the U.S. to leave with a stable government in place.

Then they list five categories of U.S. interests at stake in Iraq, and detail what effect each strategy would likely have on these interests. The categories:

1. Prevent Iraq from becoming a haven or platform for international terrorists.
2. Restore U.S. credibility, prestige and the capacity to act worldwide.
3. Improve regional stability.
4. Limit and redirect Iranian influence.
5. Maintain an independent Iraq as a single state.

The categories are a bit clumsy. (One could add, “Reduce loss of American or Iraqi lives,” for instance.) But the underlying point is clearly valuable, and too easily lost in the political debate. There are sure to be painful costs of any strategy that is adopted after the Bush Administration leaves office. And instead of just calling each other “irresponsible” or “wrong,” it would be valuable for the country to face these trade-offs with nuance, head-on, with our eyes open.