Americans are split down the middle on the presidential candidates' withdrawal plans for US troops in Iraq, and the two men are ardently pointing out their differences. By the November election, though, this debate may be largely diminished, if not moot.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed half of Americans favor Mr. Obama's plan to withdraw the bulk of US troops over 16 months. The other half sides with Mr. McCain's view that events in Iraq – not a timetable – should determine the drawdown.
If the positive trends continue in Iraq, the bulk of US troops could leave sooner rather than later (Obama promises by mid-2010; McCain envisions by 2013).
McCain criticizes his opponent for hugging a set timeline. He has urged Obama to heed US generals before deciding what to do.
On an imminent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will likely be told by the generals that things are looking up in Iraq – in no small part because of the 2007-2008 troop surge he opposed. Insurgent attacks are down. Al Qaeda is pretty much routed. By mid-2009, American ground troops will be "mostly" done with their combat role, says Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who has been responsible for Iraqi training.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said for the first time last week that there should be a timetable for departing US troops, with the government spokesman suggesting 2011 or 2012 for completing a withdrawal. American officials have taken this as a wink-wink, nod-nod in the direction of coming regional elections. But Iraqi politics can't be easily discounted. Most Iraqis want US troops out, and negotiations over keeping some US forces in Iraq for the long term have broken down.
This does not bode well for McCain's idea of a long-term basing of some US troops in Iraq for strategic purposes, as in Germany. Obama would also leave a residual force to deal with Al Qaeda remnants, protect Americans, and continue Iraqi troop training, but says no to a permanent base and chides McCain's plan as open-ended. On Afghanistan, too, a McCain or Obama White House might act similarly. This week, the two laid out strategies that sounded remarkably in sync.
Both men said they want more US troops for Afghanistan, more nonmilitary aid for the country, and more support for Pakistan's new democratic government and the Pakistani people in uprooting Taliban and Al Qaeda along the border.
Of course, the Iraqi trendline pushing the candidates together is no sure thing. The lid could again blow off. Then the two mens' differences would come into stark relief: One says that Iraq is a distraction for more important goals, and that getting out is the way to pressure Baghdad into greater responsibility; the other believes success in Iraq is central to the antiterrorism fight, and that US military support is a help – not a hindrance – to more Iraqi responsibility.
Given Iraq's fragility, voters would do well to remember that difference, even as positive events there blur it.