Leader Blues

Monday, July 28, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Straight Talk Express

John McCain must wonder what bad luck can befall his quest for the presidency next. But his predicament may rest not on luck but judgment.

With Barack Obama making the rounds of the genuflecting capitals of Europe and the Middle East like a conquering Caesar, McCain has had to watch while everyone — well, nearly everyone — toasted his plan to withdraw combat forces from Iraq in the first year and a half of his presidency. McCain now is almost alone in his insistence that any mention of drawing down U. S. forces from Iraq until “total victory” is achieved amounts to surrender in the war against terror.

The top officials of the Iraqi government, including the prime minister whom McCain likes to call his friend, said Obama’s plan seemed about right. They said U.S. forces should be gone by the end of 2010. Obama himself has never been quite so precise. He said that he would not blindly withdraw the last of combat troops if conditions there dramatically worsened and commanders gave him compelling reasons to adjust the timetable. Anyone who makes unconditional promises about how he will move in a perilous and uncertain world is an errant fool. He is not apt to get elected either.

Back home, President Bush reversed five years of rigidity and embraced a timetable for leaving. He had ridiculed the notion of a “timetable” so thoroughly and for so long that he couldn’t use the word. Rather, the administration said it would work with the Iraqi government to establish a “time horizon” for drawing down the combat force in Iraq.

Et tu, George, McCain must have cried — or something coarser. Now he has been isolated by the president whom he had stood so solidly behind.

But the doughty senator only dug in. Yesterday, he said again that the United States must fight in Iraq until it is unconditionally victorious and that to set even vague timetables for leaving would be tantamount to surrender to the terrorists and abandonment of the government we helped install.

Victory. Therein lies John McCain’s danger and his salvation. No one can say what victory is, and that includes McCain. The huge Shia faction, which constitutes the government and enjoys the support of neighboring Iran, has clearly won. Do we stay as long as the minority Sunnis, who ruled under Saddam Hussein, fear decimation by the ruling Shia? That could be the 100 years that McCain once said might have to be America’s commitment. Given Iraq’s history, it could be a millennium.

But victory also can already have been won. McCain can claim that the strategy he supported and that Obama opposed won Iraq and saved America. Every shrewd lawyer learns the trick when he sees that the deck doesn’t favor him.

After the conventions and maybe even before, McCain will edge imperceptibly toward a declaration of victory and phased withdrawal. You read it here first.