The Magazine

Voting for Commander in Chief

There can only be one.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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It would be hard to design a better test for the job of commander in chief than the real-life test senators John McCain and Barack Obama have undergone in the last two years. As the situation in Iraq deteriorated during 2006 and the war reached its most critical moment, both senators served on national security committees: McCain on Armed Services, Obama on Foreign Relations. From those positions, with access to classified situation reports as well as the public testimony and private advice of those who knew the situation in Iraq best, each man reached an understanding of the facts on the ground and the interests at stake. And each proposed a strategy. It was as close as a presidential candidate could get to showing how he would respond to a national security crisis without already being in the White House.

Both men's proposals are a matter of public record, available on the Internet. McCain set forth his in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on January 5, 2007 (at an event marking the release of AEI's "Choosing Victory," which I wrote, outlining a strategy like the one Bush later ordered). Obama presented his in the "Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007
" (S. 433), which he introduced in the Senate on January 30. We also know the strategy the president chose--the surge of forces he announced on January 10, very similar to what McCain described--and the outcome it has brought.

McCain's recommendations drew on his conversations with commanders on the ground in Iraq, where he traveled in late December 2006. McCain called for a minimum of three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and at least one in Anbar province. Their mission, he said, would be

to implement the thus far elusive 'hold' element of the military's clear-hold-build strategy, to maintain security in cleared areas, to protect the population and critical infrastructure, and to impose the government's authority--essential elements of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy.

McCain cited the "excellent" track record of U.S. troops in stopping sectarian violence. He noted that, "where American soldiers have deployed to areas in turmoil, including Baghdad neighborhoods, the violence has ceased almost immediately." And he was specific about the tasks troops would perform: "establish local outposts; forge relationships with local leaders, which by the way is proceeding in Anbar province; build intelligence networks; engage in economic reconstruction activities; oversee other employment-generating projects; and wean the populace off their reliance on militias for safety." All this the Americans would do "in cooperation with the Iraqi forces until such time as the Iraqis can do it on their own."

In his speech, McCain predicted what the surge would achieve. First, it would cause "more casualties and extra hardships for our brave fighting men and women." But then it would bring violence under control. This would "pave the way for a political settlement." McCain went on, "Once the government wields greater authority, however, Iraqi leaders must take significant steps on their own. These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, a more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that will bring Sunnis into the government, and a large increase in employment-generating economic projects."

McCain acknowledged "many, many mistakes since 2003" and the difficulty of reversing them. Still, the consequences of defeat would be "catastrophic." His bottom line: "By surging troops and bringing security to Baghdad and other areas, we will give the Iraqis and their partners the best possible chances to succeed."

Barack Obama's approach differed from McCain's in its basis as well as its goals and methods. Not having traveled to Iraq since January 2006--before the Samarra Mosque bombing, the explosion of sectarian violence, and the two failed U.S. attempts to quell that violence--Obama relied on others' testimony in assessing the situation on the ground. His bill quoted a skeptical Colin Powell and an even more skeptical CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid. Abizaid said he had discussed the usefulness of a surge of U.S. troops with "every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey," and all had agreed that a surge of troops would not "add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq." Worse, it would "prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."