In the Arena

Today’s McCain-Obama Tiff

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John McCain has a half a point in today’s assault on Barack Obama’s alleged national security inexperience: It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Obama to visit the war zones, meet with our troops and their leaders–as soon as the nomination fight is over. There’s a lot to learn, if you ask the right questions. And McCain was wise enough to understand that Bush’s initial strategy was a disaster in Iraq, and to call for the changes that have brought increased security, if not long-term stability, to that country.

But McCain’s not in a terrific position to give Obama travel advice, or to question Obama’s knowledge or judgment about national security matters. Obama can–and has–argued that for all his experience, McCain was completely wrong about going to war in the first place. Furthermore, since General Petraeus initiated his counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, McCain has been a half-crazed and largely unreliable cheerleader for the effort–making claims that Petraeus never would, using words (like “victory”) that Petraeus never has. McCain’s downrange jaunts–like his embarrassing passage through Baghdad’s Shorja market–have been promotional gimmicks rather than learning experiences. (If he’d stopped and asked a few questions in the market, for example, he would have learned that the merchants there abhor the Maliki government and swear allegiance to Muqtada al-Sadr.)

Iraq is hard to know. Ask any intelligence officer. There are wild disagreements among the experts about the relative strength of Sadr’s movement, the long-term intentions of the former Sunni jihadis that we have helped organize into Awakening Councils, the Badr militia that forms the spine of the Iraqi Army. If Obama is wise, he’ll visit the scene of the Bush Administration’s historic blunder–and if he’s really smart, he’ll come away with a greater sense of humility than John McCain has about a part of the world that has been hell on interlopers for more than 3000 years.