The Magazine

Misfortunes of War

Success in Iraq confounds the Democrats.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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A funny thing happened this summer: John McCain taunted Barack Obama into making a trip to Iraq, whereupon the press looked around and finally noticed what those who were paying attention had known for some months now. The country portrayed for the last four years by the press and the Democrats as Vietnam-in-the-Desert is doing much better, what with al Qaeda on the run, the Sunnis and Shias coming together, the Shia militias largely defeated, and the war itself looking more or less .  .  . won.

"The combat phase finally is ending," trilled the Associated Press, which had been warning of doom only weeks earlier. "The United States is now winning the war that two years ago had seemed lost. .  .  . People are expressing a new confidence in their security forces. .  .  . Parks are filled every weekend with families playing." Was this good news for McCain, who had staked his career on calling for the surge when all appeared hopeless? Well, no. But it was, apparently, good news for Obama, as less stress in Iraq made the world seem less threatening, made his lack of experience in foreign relations appear less disturbing, and made voters more likely to feel safe taking chances on him. When Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki said that Obama's plan for a 16-month-long phased withdrawal of American troops struck him as not an illogical timeline, it seemed yet another leg up for the audacious contender. For McCain, it was the old, unfair rule that to solve a problem was to make oneself seem redundant, as shown by the dismissal in 1945 of British prime minister Winston Churchill.

But wait! If the war is now "won," it may help Obama, but doesn't it also help President Bush? His catastrophic, failed, mess of a war in Iraq--the worst decision ever made, by the worst president ever (as the ranters tell us)--was supposed to be the battering ram that would break the Republican hold on the White House, the core of the case Democrats intended to make that his administration had been a disaster like no other in history, Vietnam cubed. When Bush doubled down with the surge in early 2007, Democrats placed a huge bet on failure and sat back to enjoy and cash in their winnings. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid released a joint letter that said a surge would be useless; Senators Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel introduced a resolution opposing the buildup; votes of no confidence followed in rapid succession. "We are going to pick up seats as a result of this war," Reid exulted. Democrats in the Senate spent much of their time forcing a series of votes designed to get their opponents on record as backing the war and the president. In June 2007, Reid declared the war lost.

By the end of that summer, disturbed by some hint that better news might be coming, Democrats tried a preemptive strike on the testimony to Congress of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. "Dead flat wrong," Biden pronounced their assessment, before it had even been delivered. Rahm Emanuel predicted a report deserving of a "Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction." Hillary Clinton said the reports of improvement in Iraq required a "willing suspension of disbelief." Signs of success gave Democrats the vapors. In the face of an optimistic report from General Jack Keane, one of the principal authors of the surge strategy, Representative Nancy Boyda of Kansas became so unnerved that she fled from the hearing. "There was only so much that you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while," she said.

If the mere possibility of small signs of progress could so unnerve Democrats last summer, the party might want to lie down and rest for a while as it contemplates a convention, a campaign, and an election to follow, with no failed war to run on, and no George Bush to blame for it. If the war has been won, somebody has to have won it. They can still claim the war failed (in spite of succeeding), or is likely to flare up again at any moment, but that makes Obama's lack of experience still more disturbing. On the other hand, if Iraq is now tame enough to trust Obama to mess with, it means that the president has done something right. Or does it? Can a commander in chief be detached from a victory? Can Obama be trusted if there isn't a victory? Can the president be losing a war while the country is winning it? These are the small contradictions the party will have to explain.