Iraq was expected to be the key issue in the 2008 presidential election. Instead, opinion polls tend to show that it is the second most important issue, after the economy. That second place showing does not justify the decision of corporate television news to deep-six the Iraq story. It is still the number one issue for 25% of Americans, or 75-million people. Moreover, 71% of Americans think that the Iraq debacle was one reason for the bad economy. So when they name the latter as the most important issue a lot of them are rolling the two issues into one.
Iraq is still central to the campaign and people are fooling themselves if they say otherwise. But it isn't playing out as expected.
The major debate the Republicans were looking forward to having revolved around the success of the troop escalation of 2007 and 2008. They want to argue that the escalation showed that Iraq is not an unwinnable war and that counter-insurgency techniques could tamp down violence. Therefore, there was no reason for the next president to withdraw US troops.
Moreover, McCain argued, if the US withdrew from Iraq, "al-Qaeda" would take over the country and use it as a base to attack the American mainland. A timetable for withdrawal was both unnecessarily defeatist and also highly unwise, they were saying. They completely ignored the political yields expected of the troop escalation, most of which have not materialized, concentrating only on death statistics.
The idea that a tiny fringe terrorist group hated by Shiites and is not even popular with Sunni Arab Iraqis could take over a largely Shiite country with a large Kurdish minority was always daft. That McCain says it is a possibility gives reason to seriously question whether he has the judgment to be president. But even Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of US forces in Northern Iraq, says al-Qaeda is defeated in his area of operations.
"Defeat means they're not capable of major offensive operations … We don't think al Qaeda has that anymore. All the cities that we have in the northern part of Iraq, I think have been secured . . . We're literally in the post-Gettysburg phase of this … We have defeated them in the city. They have dispersed to the desert, now we are pursuing them out into their safe havens: small villages and towns."
Hertling specifically gave the credit for this victory to a change in the esprit de corps of the Iraqi Army. I have always said that "al-Qaeda in Iraq" was over-hyped, and that it would be defeated because it chose a sectarian rather than a nationalist strategy.
So how likely is it that "al-Qaeda" is going to take over anything substantial in Iraq, with or without US troops? It was always a silly idea: Even if the Shiites and Kurds would not have massacred them, the Turks, Syrians and Jordanians would have. But Hertling's comments underline how silly that scenario is.
By the way, the American public never bought McCain's terror-mongering. In February more thought al-Qaeda was more likely to attack the US if it kept troops in Iraq than if it withdrew. Some 16% thought it made no difference, and 56% thought it was either more dangerous to stay in Iraq than to leave, or thought it was a wash. Only 38% thought that a withdrawal from Iraq increased the danger of a terror hit on the US.
Given the way Republicans and McCain have crafted the narrative of Iraq as being all about "al-Qaeda," for that organization to disappear from the front pages would be a cruel blow to the McCain campaign. Without it, there is no justification for the US to remain in Iraq.
Almost as bad is for the Iraqi government to align its position with that of the Obama campaign. McCain increasingly looks like he is stuck in 2007, and Obama looks more and more like the man of the future. That conclusion is the opposite of the GOP's spin on Obama, but then they have never understood colonialism or what is wrong with it. Or why Iraqi's march through the streets of Baghdad and other major cities chanting "Yankee Go Home!" in demonstrations nearly every Friday after prayer services.