Forget the recent manufactured news about whether Barack Obama was shifting his position on Iraq. (He's always said that he has a goal of withdrawing troops within 16 months and would aim to do so in a responsible and careful manner, meaning that it could take longer or shorter.) The real story is this: in the general election, one candidate says, This war was a mistake and we must end it and begin disengagement; the other proclaims, This war was righteous and we must keep our troops there (maybe up to 100 years) and win it. Given public opinion on the war, it's no wonder that the Republicans and the McCain campaign want to muddy up this stark difference--and the best way for them to do that is to make it seem as if Barack Obama has an unsteady hand when it comes to the war. So expect the desperate GOPers to pounce on any Obama remark that they can twist into purported proof that Obama is not really sure what he wants to do about Iraq.
But on Iraq the McCainiacs have more to worry about then Obama. They are being undermined by Baghdad. On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he wants some sort of timetable for a U.S. troops withdrawal. Though his national security adviser added that any timetable would be conditioned on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security, this was the first time the PM had mentioned a schedule for disengagement. (All politics is local: Maliki's party faces a stiff challenge in the upcoming provincial elections from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the departure of U.S. military forces.)
So how can McCain and his gang now accuse Obama of being a defeatist surrender-monkey when his call for a timetable for withdrawal is echoed by the leadership of Iraq? This is a real problem for McCain. He has no edge on Obama when it comes to the economy. His only hope of upstaging Obama--policy-wise--is on national security matters, with the Iraq war front and center. But if the Iraqis don't buy the absolute necessity of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, what does McCain have to offer? (How do you say nada in Arabic?)
I've been repeating this for a year--sorry to do so again--but the reality on the ground in Iraq in the fall will have an impact on the U.S. election. The connection used to be obvious: bad news there would be bad news for the Republicans here. But there's now another possibility: good news there could be bad news for Republicans here. If there are too many explosions and little political progress in Iraq, McCain could pay a political price on Election Day. But if the Iraqis decide they want to go it on their own with the Americans gone, McCain would have no Iraq policy left. Sure, he could claim the surge worked and try to claim credit. But voters, as the cliche goes, tend not to reward presidential candidates for past actions; elections, the consultants keep reminding us, are about the future. Americans don't want other Iraqs in the future. And without Iraq, McCain is merely a sometimes quirky Republican ex-maverick who has yet to learn how to speak convincingly about the number-one issue, the economy. He needs Iraq. But he needs it not too hot and not too cold--and the stove is far beyond his control.