There can be only one

June 10, 2008

Commander in Chief, that is. Both John McCain and Barack Obama want the job. If, like me, you regard national security as the President’s top priority, then I think you’d agree that it’s crucial we pick the right guy. But, how to choose? It’s not as if one can ask either man "What past experience have you had commanding the armed forces of the world’s sole remaining superpower? How did you handle your last nuclear crisis?"

Frederick Kagan, writing in The Weekly Standard, argues that we nonetheless do have a good yardstick by which to measure the candidates: one of the authors of the new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the "surge"), Kagan says we should compare how each candidate’s assessed the situation in Iraq before the surge took place, what they recommended the US do, and how the situation has evolved since then.

McCain argued that providing more troops and engaging in an active strategy of population protection would allow the Iraqis the time and security needed to stand up their own armed forces and take measures toward political reconciliation. Obama, on the other hand, argued that Iraq was a failure, that adding more troops would only make a civil war worse, and that our only course was to withdraw. Kagan provides the details, but that’s the essence.

The verdict? McCain took an unpopular decision and was proved right, while Obama took the politically safe course and was proved dead wrong. After an initial spike in US casualties at the opening of combat with al Qaeda in the summer of 2007, US and Iraqi casualties have dropped to levels not seen since 2003. Al Qaeda has been driven out of Anbar province and Baghdad and reduced to just a foothold in the city of Mosul and, with the reconstituted Iraqi armed forces in the lead, are being suppressed there, too. In fact, the Iraqi military has improved so much that, the defeatist narrative of The New York Times notwithstanding, they planned, undertook, and won their own operations to recover Basra and Sadr City from Shiite militias.

McCain was also right that the breathing space provided by increased security would enable the Iraqis to achieve some measure of political progress: in recent months, the government in Baghdad has either passed or will soon pass a formal budget, an oil-revenue sharing law, a provincial elections law to enable a federal system, and a law determining the status of former members of the Baath Party. All of these were demands of the Democrats; all have been or are being met.

Kagan concludes by considering what might have happened had Obama’s strategy prevailed, instead. It’s worth quoting in full:

What would have happened if Obama’s bill had passed? There is no way to know for sure, but it seems likely that, facing less resistance, Al Qaeda in Iraq would have continued to gain strength, the fragile Iraqi Security Forces would have collapsed, as would the fragile Iraqi government, militias would have flourished–and the United States would have departed under fire, accepting a humiliating defeat in the war against al Qaeda that would have reverberated globally.

For any voter trying to choose between the two candidates for commander in chief, there is no better test than this: When American strategy in a critical theater was up for grabs, John McCain proposed a highly unpopular and risky path, which he accurately predicted could lead to success. Barack Obama proposed a popular and politically safe route that would have led to an unnecessary and debilitating American defeat at the hands of al Qaeda.

The two men brought different backgrounds to the test, of course. In January 2007, McCain had been a senator for 20 years and had served in the military for 23 years. Obama had been a senator for 2 years and before that was a state legislator, lawyer, and community organizer. But neither presidential candidates nor the commander in chief gets to choose the tests that history brings. Once in office, the one elected must perform.

As I wrote above, national security is the primary duty of anyone holding the office of president. I consider the war against the renewed jihad to be the overriding issue of our age, and Iraq to be a crucial theater in that struggle. On assessing that theater in its moment of crisis, John McCain was right and Barack Obama was wrong, dangerously wrong. There is no other way to put it.

In a election in which one candidate has made a particular selling point of his superior judgement, therefore, I know which one I want calling the shots

UPDATE: Kagan and his wife have an article in today’s Wall St. Journal detailing the political and military improvement of the Iraqis.