On the night that John McCain secured the Republican nomination, he said about Iraq that "it is of little use to Americans for their candidates to avoid the many complex challenges of these struggles by re-litigating decisions of the past."
He is right that it would be a mistake for his campaign to focus on the past at the expense of the future. Either of his Democratic opponents will be on far more vulnerable terrain defending the incoherencies of their proposed plans to "end" the war than if they get to cherry-pick debates from the past with the benefit of hindsight.
But there are at least four reasons why Senator McCain would be making a mistake if he avoided entirely the historical debate.
First and foremost, the historical case remains an important factor in determining votes. In these times, political leaders are asking voters two questions: Will you vote for me, and do you have the stomach for continuing this costly war? As two colleagues (Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler) and I show in a forthcoming book, public opinion on both those questions is a function of two underlying attitudes: the retrospective opinion of whether the war was a mistake, and the prospective opinion of whether the war can ultimately be won.
The retrospective and prospective judgments work in tandem, but have different weights depending on whether you are trying to predict support for continuing the war or vote choice. In 2004, the prospective attitude (will we win) was the long pole in the tent for supporting the continuation of the war, but the retrospective attitude (was it the right thing) was the long pole in the tent in determining presidential choice. Put simply, President Bush beat Senator Kerry in part because, at that time, a majority of Americans said they still supported the original decision to invade. To win voters, McCain may have to address their concerns about the original decision to invade Iraq.
Second, even if you are focusing narrowly on shoring up public support for continuing the mission, the historical case matters. People who think the war was the right thing and also think we will succeed have a stronger stomach for continuing American efforts than people who think it was a mistake but still think it is winnable.
For the public to believe that a commander in chief can bring the Iraq war to a successful conclusion, they must have a strong degree of trust in that leader. If the public only hears unrebutted attacks about the original decision to invade Iraq, the lies and myths will take hold and undermine public confidence in the continuing effort in Iraq.
For instance, after the 2004 election, the Bush administration largely stopped "relitigating the past" and focused almost all of its Iraq messages on the future. The Democrats, in contrast, kept up a barrage of partisan attacks about the original decision. The Bush nolo contendere stance may have been interpreted by many Americans as tantamount to a guilty plea. Is it any surprise, therefore, that according to one CBS/NYT poll last year, as many as 60 percent of respondents said they thought "members of the Administration intentionally misled the public" in making its case for the war with Iraq whereas before the 2004 election (when the Bush team was making a stronger defense) only 44 percent believed that myth.
Third, the historical case for invading Iraq is much stronger than conventional wisdom pretends. It is not as strong as the administration thought in 2002, but it is far stronger than the average listener to late-night comics or talking heads--i.e., a normal American--might think today. Despite strenuous efforts, war critics have not come up with well-substantiated cases of the administration saying something that it knew was not true or had no evidentiary basis for believing was true. Of course, there are many cases of the administration saying things that turned out to be not true. But moving the public from "you were lying" to "you were mistaken" would be significant progress. And moving it all the way to "you had understandable reasons for your policy" could be game-changing.
Finally, the failure to defend the historical case has allowed Democrats to avoid answering tough questions about their own stances. Senator Obama, for instance, loves to praise his own judgment in coming out against the Iraq war in 2002, favoring instead containing Saddam Hussein with a vigorous weapons inspections regime. What Obama has never explained is how he thought the United States could reconstitute the containment/inspections regime absent a credible threat of force. When Obama gave his 2002 speech, there were no inspectors on the ground in Iraq and the U.N. sanctions were falling apart. It was the U.S. threat of force--the very threat Obama was protesting--that reinvigorated the Security Council and reestablished the inspections regime.
McCain cannot stake his entire candidacy on trying to persuade people to support the original war decision. After several years of one-sided propaganda, American attitudes on this are fairly entrenched and unlikely to move much. But he shouldn't cede the ground without a fight.
In his victory speech, McCain showed that he understood this because he went on to say, "I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime as I criticized the failed tactics that were employed for too long to establish the conditions that will allow us to leave that country with our country's interests secure and our honor intact."
Avoiding the historical case won't trick Obama or Clinton into relaxing their relentless Iraq-oriented attacks on McCain. For Obama, his one speech opposing the Iraq invasion is the solitary piece of evidence that he has the foreign policy experience worthy of a commander in chief. Obama and Clinton will deliver their Iraq talking points no matter what. The real question is whether Americans can hear from McCain a more persuasive historical case on Iraq than we have heard in years. Yes, yes we can.
Peter D. Feaver is Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science at Duke University. From 2005-2007, he was special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform at the National Security Council.