Now it's our turn to hope.
Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
In politics, as one suspects in life, no good deed goes unpunished. John McCain staked everything on success in Iraq. He advocated the surge publicly and made the case for it privately. He defended it passionately and intelligently, and was indispensable in beating back critics, shoring up nervous supporters, and keeping enough public support for the surge so the Democratic party's repeated efforts to abort it failed.
The surge worked. It worked better than even its proponents expected. The strategic and moral calamity of an American withdrawal in defeat from the central front in the war on Islamic jihadism was averted. The positive outcome of a reasonably stable, democratic, and friendly Iraq is now in sight. Thanks in large part to John McCain, we did not have a second Vietnam-like humiliation. Thanks in large part to John McCain, the United States is on the verge of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
And as a result of the remarkable progress in Iraq over the past two years--progress whose possibility was scoffed at and whose reality was then denied by all leading Democrats except Joe Lieberman--Iraq faded as an issue in the presidential race. And with it, the critical question of who should be commander in chief also receded. By the fall of 2008, McCain got no credit for one of the great acts of statesmanship by a senator--let alone a senator who was also a presidential candidate--in American history. President Obama will now be able to draw down in an orderly manner, following (we trust) the guidance of Generals Petraeus and Odierno--generals who consulted with McCain often and whose achievement McCain helped make possible.
John McCain said repeatedly that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war. We ended up winning a war, and he ended up losing the election. It's not quite the cosmic injustice of the British electorate rejecting Churchill in 1945--but it's no small injustice either.
McCain lost in part because everyone wanted a change from President Bush, and McCain was from the same party as Bush. But, the much-derided Bush administration (and they deserve some of the derision) did succeed in preventing a second terrorist attack in the United States over the last seven years. This fact, like Iraq, barely came up in the presidential campaign. In October 2000, after eight years of the Clinton administration, a strengthening al Qaeda attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, killing 17 servicemen and wounding 39. No such thing happened in 2008. Al Qaeda today seems in retreat. But most voters did not let keeping us safe at home, any more than winning a war abroad, determine their vote.
Encouraging Americans' tendency to take hard-won national security successes for granted--once they are won--is the key to how Democrats, in modern times, win presidential elections. Dwight Eisenhower pursued a cautious but not ineffective foreign policy. Voters were unimpressed by the peace and stability of 1960 and chose John Kennedy. Partly as a result of Kennedy's initial weakness, the Berlin Wall went up and the Cuban Missile Crisis followed--and then, partly out of a felt need of Lyndon Johnson's to appear strong, we escalated in Vietnam.
The voters elected Richard Nixon to extricate us from the quagmire in Vietnam with honor, which he did, and Gerald Ford attempted to prevent the Democratic Congress from walking away from our ally and our responsibility. Voters decided, however, to give the presidency back to the party of JFK and LBJ--by this time more the party of George McGovern--and we got the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
So Americans elected Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and--stunningly--they won the Cold War virtually without firing a shot. (Bush also drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.) Voters were able in 1992 to take peace for granted and to focus on domestic policy. "It's the economy, stupid" was stupid but successful just as its equivalents had been in 1976 and 1960.
We think it was a similar mistake to select Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008. We hope we're proved wrong. We're encouraged that President-elect Obama has seemed at times during this campaign to understand it's a dangerous world, that he'll be tested, and that weakness is provocative and dangerous. We're pleased that the president-elect is committed to building up the military, succeeding in Afghanistan, defending our allies, and, of course, keeping the country safe.