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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Given this analysis, Obama's legislation forbade the surge and ordered most U.S. troops out of Iraq by the spring of 2008. It said,

The redeployment of the Armed Forces under this section shall be substantial, shall occur in a gradual manner, and shall be executed at a pace to achieve the goal of the complete redeployment of all United States combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, consistent with the expectation of the Iraq Study Group, if all the matters set forth in subsection (b)(1)(B) are not met by such date, subject to the exceptions for retention of forces for force protection, counter-terrorism operations, training of Iraqi forces, and other purposes as contemplated by subsection (g).

In the media, Obama repeatedly predicted that the surge would fail. The day the president announced the new policy, Obama told Larry King he "did not see anything" in the president's surge that would "make a significant dent in the sectarian violence." The same day, he said on MSNBC,

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse. I think it takes pressure off the Iraqis to arrive at the sort of political accommodation that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there. So I am going to actively oppose the president's proposal.... I think he is wrong, and I think the American people believe he's wrong.

Four days later, Obama told Face the Nation, "We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war. And until we acknowledge that reality--we can send 15,000 more troops, 20,000 more troops, 30,000 more troops, I don't know any expert on the region or any military officer that I've spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground."

So what happened? President Bush ordered the surge. He committed an additional five Army brigades and two Marine battalions to Iraq with the mission of protecting the Iraqi population. In accomplishing this, U.S. forces partnered with Iraqi troops precisely as McCain had suggested, helping them "hold" areas that they had jointly "cleared." Meanwhile, American troops established bonds with local leaders, as McCain had said they would, which led to the expansion of the "Anbar Awakening" movement throughout central Iraq. And U.S. troops developed numerous economic and infrastructure projects that provided jobs.

Sectarian violence stopped almost completely. Al Qaeda in Iraq was dealt what CIA director Michael Hayden now assesses as "a near strategic defeat." This allowed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to commit Iraqi Security Forces directly against the last remaining illegal militias in Iraq, clearing them out of Basra and Sadr City--weaning "the populace off their reliance on militias for safety," as McCain had put it. American casualties initially rose, as McCain had warned they would, but then fell dramatically: Last month was the lowest-casualty month of the entire war.

Once violence was under control, the Iraqis began to make serious political progress, as McCain had predicted. They passed almost all of the "benchmark" legislation that Obama's bill would have required.

What would have happened if Obama's bill had passed? There is no way to know for sure, but it seems likely that, facing less resistance, Al Qaeda in Iraq would have continued to gain strength, the fragile Iraqi Security Forces would have collapsed, as would the fragile Iraqi government, militias would have flourished--and the United States would have departed under fire, accepting a humiliating defeat in the war against al Qaeda that would have reverberated globally.

For any voter trying to choose between the two candidates for commander in chief, there is no better test than this: When American strategy in a critical theater was up for grabs, John McCain proposed a highly unpopular and risky path, which he accurately predicted could lead to success. Barack Obama proposed a popular and politically safe route that would have led to an unnecessary and debilitating American defeat at the hands of al Qaeda.

The two men brought different backgrounds to the test, of course. In January 2007, McCain had been a senator for 20 years and had served in the military for 23 years. Obama had been a senator for 2 years and before that was a state legislator, lawyer, and community organizer. But neither presidential candidates nor the commander in chief gets to choose the tests that history brings. Once in office, the one elected must perform.

--Frederick W. Kagan, for the Editors