Obama Pounces on McCain’s Iraq Metric, So Let’s Talk Metrics

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Ahh, the glories of a general election. For months, McCain has been arguing on a weekly, if not daily basis, that the most important X Factor in Iraq is not time (as in, how long do we stay) but casualties (as in, how many Americans are getting hurt).

So McCain went on the Today Show this morning and said what he has said probably hundreds of times before. Here is the exchange:

NBC’S MATT LAUER: If it’s working Senator, do you now have a better estimate of when American forces can come home from Iraq?

SEN. MCCAIN: No, but that’s not too important. What’s important is the casualties in Iraq, Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That’s all fine. American casualties and the ability to withdraw; we will be able to withdraw. General Petraeus is going to tell us in July when he thinks we are. But the key to it is that we don’t want any more Americans in harm’s way.

In the past, no one has loudly challenged this thesis, which is legitimately questionable. There are other important metrics, of course: the cost to American taxpayer, the destabilizing affect on the region, the stress on the military, the limitations imposed on military operations in Afghanistan, to name a few. Who says casualties are the one thing that matters?

But the DNC/Obama rapid response operation is now in full effect. So as soon as McCain had left the Today Show set, the Obama crowd was in high dudgeon. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Obama adviser Susan Rice held a conference call to ruminate on McCain’s “lack of appreciation” for the military burden in Iraq, among other things. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., put out a statement calling McCain “completely out of touch.” The McCain campaign struck back by saying that the Obama campaign was trying to “distort the truth.” Right now I am listening to another conference call with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., a McCain supporter. He just used the phrase “most outrageous.” Blah blah blah.

But instead of getting cynical about all this name calling, I am going to try to look for a silver lining. It seems to me that this is, as they would say on the schoolyard, a possible teaching moment. Can we as a country have a calm and reasoned discussion about how to judge success in Iraq, and what the most important metrics there are? We know the American people think the war has gone badly, and they want the troops home. But does McCain have a point that the Americans don’t mind staying in Iraq for years longer if the casualty rates are relatively low? (I have never seen polling on this.) What should the metrics of success and failure be in Iraq? (The obvious answer, it seems to me, is that there is no single metric.)

For those who want to read through the actual quantifiable metrics of how the Iraq war is going, take a look at the latest copy of the Iraq Index, a product of the Brookings Institution.

UPDATE: In the comments below, 53_3 has a point. Maybe the other calm and reasoned discussion to have is whether or not the metrics are predictive in any real way of what Iraq will be like in a year, or after the U.S. removes its significant military presence.