In the Arena

McCain’s Iraq Reset

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Most of the TV commenters noted the “swiftest possible conclusion” passage of John McCain’s acceptance speech last night:

We are in Iraq and our most vital security interests are clearly involved there. The next President must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide; destabilizing the entire Middle East.

Which is, shall we say, a more politic formulation than suggesting we may stay there for another 100 years. But I was more interested in the back end of that sentence, the part about not “exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide.” This is a massive leap toward reality by McCain who, up till last night, was describing the war as a binary struggle against Al Qaeda. Here, he is at least, acknowledging the complexity of the situation and the real reason why pulling out will be risky: sectarian conflict spinning out of control, as opposed to Al Qaeda taking over the country.

This is good news. It means we may be able to have a real debate on Iraq this fall, absent the Dems-want-to-hand-Al Qaeda-a-victory fearmongering. It’s a complicated debate: Clinton-Obama will, and should, argue that an orderly withdrawal is the only way to force the Iraqis to get their act together. McCain will argue–and he may be right–that Iraq will fall apart as soon as we leave. The Democrats will have to figure out an answer to that, although the best one is probably this: Iraq’s neighbors have a real stake in keeping the country whole and weak, and they’ll prefer to work out a regional equilibrium–with our help, perhaps–rather than a land grab, regional war or anarchy.
The Democrat will also argue that keeping U.S. troops there in perpetuity is (a) way too expensive, given our economic troubles, (b) too taxing for our forces and (c) a diversion from the real war in Afghanistan, where perhaps another division of U.S. troops will be needed. (McCain probably agrees about the need for more troops in Afghanistan, but he has–weirdly–criticized Obama’s willingness to strike Al Qaeda sites in Pakistan.)
In any case, McCain is to be congratulated for his accurate description of the stakes in Iraq.