The match is almost perfect. As the surge in Iraq has succeeded, the presidential campaign of John McCain has risen from the ashes. This is no coincidence, and the message is simple and unmistakable. The surge is now a powerful force in American politics. In the jargon of the 2008 presidential race, it's a game-changer.
The surge effect is the result of gains in Iraq well beyond the most optimistic dreams of the surge's advocates. The American military, led by General David Petraeus, has under-promised and over-delivered. Violence has dropped precipitously. So have attacks on Americans and combat deaths. Baghdad has been virtually secured, al Qaeda crushed, and sectarian bloodshed significantly reduced. Provinces once controlled by insurgents are scheduled to be turned over to well-trained Iraqi forces, starting with Anbar in the spring. The war, in short, is being won.
The media now say that Iraq is a secondary issue. But the voters, so far mostly on the Republican side, disagree. In New Hampshire last week, two-thirds of Republicans who voted in the primary told exit pollsters they support the war in Iraq. Oddly enough, they like the war more than they like President Bush.
For obvious reasons, McCain is the chief beneficiary of the surge effect. He has relentlessly promoted increasing the number of troops in Iraq and adopting a counterinsurgency strategy that stresses the protection and safety of Iraqi citizens. And a year ago, Bush bucked tremendous antiwar pressure, much of it from Republicans, and announced the surge strategy. Like McCain, he emphatically rejected the notion that the war was lost.
Last summer, when his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was at a low point, McCain was urged by some of his advisers to downplay his support for the war. McCain rejected that advice. He knew how to evaluate a military plan, understood that the counterinsurgency strategy was different from what had been done before in Iraq, and knew what it could accomplish (and has).
Now other Republican candidates are jumping on the surge bandwagon. At last week's debate in South Carolina, Rudy Giuliani said he had endorsed the surge, just like McCain. "Not at the time," McCain responded, referring to the time before Bush's announcement. McCain said he had "called for the change in strategy. That's the difference." It's an important difference politically.
Democrats haven't felt the surge effect yet, and it shows. Democratic congressional leaders insist the surge has achieved little that matters. Until questioned in a televised debate in New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential candidates had largely ignored the surge.
Barack Obama was the most disappointing in the debate. He offered an imaginative excuse for dismissing the surge: that the embrace of American forces in Iraq by Sunnis, the ruling ethnic group under Saddam Hussein, had been prompted by the Democratic election victory in 2006. The Sunnis were suddenly fearful of an American pullout that would leave them vulnerable to Shia oppression.
But the Sunni Awakening was a rebellion against the brutality of al Qaeda, the one-time ally of the Sunnis in the insurgency. And it began well before the American election. Indeed Sunni leaders have made clear that the Awakening happened because of their confidence the Americans would be sticking around to protect them from al Qaeda reprisals.
Hillary Clinton's response was equally amazing because she passed up a chance to disown her indefensible suggestion last September that General Petraeus was lying about the surge's success. At a Senate hearing, she told him that believing his testimony required the "willing suspension of disbelief." Asked if she still feels that way, Clinton said, "That's right."
This level of denial about the surge among Democrats is politically dangerous. Democratic voters may be immune to the surge effect, but independents are not. If the surge continues to bring stability to Iraq, independents--who produced the Democratic triumph in the 2006 election--almost certainly will begin to shift their support. They have no partisan commitment to defeat in Iraq. Like most Americans, they prefer victory.
Democrats are gambling on two things. One is that the Shia-led Iraqi government won't take steps toward reconciliation with Sunnis. The other is that the withdrawal of the five American surge brigades will lead to a renewal of violence. There's a chance this will happen, just not a very good one. Reconciliation is proceeding rapidly at the provincial level in Iraq. And now that Sunnis have mostly given up their insurgency, violence is unlikely to return to anything like pre-surge levels.
Of course McCain and Bush have gambled, too. McCain has staked his campaign and Bush his presidency on a victory and a free and independent Iraq that promotes America's national security. From the evidence of the growing surge effect, their gamble is paying off.