Watching the Republican convention one might well have become confused as to whether the U.S. was winning the conflict in Iraq or had already won it. Triumphalism and optimism were the watchwords of the day. The only theme that was elaborated upon as enthusiastically as our imminent victory in Iraq was the benighted inclination of Barack Obama to forestall it.
This is all effective rhetoric, but is a deeply ironic message from a presidential campaign that repeatedly claims to put country first and party second. It is especially disappointing from John McCain, a veteran of Vietnam. Iraq differs in many important respects from Vietnam, but in one aspect they are the same. Iraq is, as Vietnam was, an extended counterinsurgency mission, the political dimensions of which are of greater importance to ultimate success than strictly military operations. As in Vietnam, U.S. efforts have been impeded by its leaders' failure to identify the obstacles of the mission, to define its goals, or to communicate these clearly to the public at large, resulting in a crippling gap between the expectations created by government rhetoric and the evolving reality on the ground.
This lesson of Vietnam was roundly ignored by the Bush administration in the lead up to and early stages of the Iraq war. Overconfident predictions of WMDs, promises that the mission would pay for itself in Iraqi oil revenues, that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, that casualties would be light and the mission short in duration, and premature declarations of "Mission Accomplished," all deprived the Bush administration of any semblance of the credibility it required to manage the conflict, and drained the U.S. public of the political will to support the war effort. After this grossly negligent dereliction of the duty of commander in chief, one would think that President Bush's party would seek to avoid making this same mistake yet again.
Any chance at effective governance in the face of the Iraq conflict will require careful management of the expectations of the electorate: persuading citizens of the merit of adopted strategy while yet eliciting from them the patience to endure setbacks and unexpected contingencies. Instead, the Republicans are squandering any prayer of administering effective policy in pursuit of short-term political success. Pumping up the citizenry's expectations of victory is well-suited to the aspirational tendencies of our American culture, but it is heedlessly rash given the difficulties and uncertainties that face us in Iraq. To paraphrase John McCain: the Republicans, with McCain leading the charge, are putting their ambition to capture the White House before any consideration of what would be best for the U.S. if they actually do so.
Almost all of the claims that various GOP speakers made at their convention are not true. The U.S. is not safer as the result of the invasion of Iraq; Al-Qaeda has not been materially weakened by this mission in aggregate. Any battlefield losses Al-Qaeda suffered in Iraq have been more than offset by the recruits the U.S. occupation has attracted to the cause. Any demoralization Al-Qaeda has suffered due to recent setbacks in Iraq is offset by the gains made in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where skills and tactics learned in battle against U.S. soldiers in Iraq are being applied to tragic effect. While it is true that Al-Qaeda's position in Iraq itself has degraded over the last year, it still has far greater purchase there than it did during the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was virtually none at all. Nor has the Iraq conflict significantly deprived Al-Qaeda of resources. The material needs of Al-Qaeda are so small that they are virtually limitlessly replenishable.
Moreover, "victory" in Iraq is neither imminent or assured. The New York Times had an excellent piece in Friday's Op/Ed, co-authored by Lt. Colonel John Nagl, one of the principal architects of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine. It warns that one cost of recent improvements in Iraq has been decreased U.S. influence: the more confident the Iraqi government feels in the security of its own position, the less it is inclined to heed U.S. demands. This implicitly means that the evolving situation will become increasingly unpredictable in years to come. As far as the situation has improved in the past year, hard times and hard sacrifices may yet lie ahead, a contingency for which U.S. leaders should begin to prepare the public right now.
The GOP knows that these facts are all complex truths, and that any attempt to articulate them in extended debate will leave Democrats' vulnerable to being caricatured as "nervous nellies" and defeatists. However, Democrats do not necessarily need to focus overmuch on the factual inaccuracies undergirding Republican rhetoric. They only need to point out that John McCain, among other Republicans in the the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, repeatedly predicted: "[W]e will win this conflict. We will win it easily." The question then becomes why the American people should accept McCain's assurances a second time. Moreover, it raises severe doubts about the wisdom of giving such assurances, given the damaging effect such overconfident predictions have had on the political conduct of the mission thus far. One would like to believe that John McCain has not, as he has accused his opponent of doing, traded what is in the best interests of the nation for what is politically expedient. A more charitable view would be, as has been said of him recently, that he "just doesn't get it."