You’d think that after an eight-hour testimony like Petraeus and Crocker’s yesterday, the presidential candidates would now have a clear set of facts to debate. If only. The problem, as the Times puts it , is that Clinton/Obama and McCain “seemed to be talking about two different wars.” Clinton cited the war’s “tremendous cost to our national security.” Obama suggested our best hope might be a “messy, sloppy status quo” as long as there’s not “huge outbreaks of violence.” McCain seemed cheery by contrast: “We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.”
Petraeus and Crocker, meanwhile, did little to clarify details. Clinton and Obama pushed them to describe progress that would justify a drawdown in troops. “These factors are fairly clear,” Petraeus told Clinton. “There’s obviously an enemy situation factor, there’s a friendly situation factor with respect to Iraqi forces, local governance, even economic and political dynamics, all of which are considered as the factors in making recommendations on further reductions.” In other words, We have no idea . As Fred Kaplan phrased it , “They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can’t cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can’t cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.”
How does this change the debate? Not one bit. If anything, it gives both the Obama/Clinton side and the McCain side what they need to keep making their arguments louder than ever. McCain can focus on military progress, which Petraeus said is “significantly better” than before, while Obama/Clinton can focus on the lack of political progress, which is equally undeniable. For McCain, security is the benchmark of success. For Obama/Clinton, who stress that “there is no military solution,” success is a sustainable political structure (which, of course, presumes security). But as yesterday’s testimony showed, there’s no agreement on the state of the war. If the GOP and Democratic nominees were to debate Iraq right now, it would be like ships passing in the night.
Maybe that’s why the recent rhetorical battle over John McCain’s “100 years” remark has been so impenetrable: The candidates are imagining totally different scenarios. McCain insists he’s talking about a long-term occupation akin to that of postwar Japan and Korea, where tens of thousands of troops are still stationed. Americans would accept that sort of peacekeeping role, he says, “as long as our soldiers are not being wounded or maimed or killed.” Obama would dispute the premise. When Obama thinks of 100 years in Iraq, it’s not a peaceful occupation he imagines. It’s a protracted expenditure of money and blood that fails to reach the point where we can draw down troops. From that perspective, cutting our losses makes a lot of sense.
If Petraeus’ testimony clarified anything, it’s that the candidates perceive the war like alternate realities. As Hillary might say, for either candidate to accept the other’s premises requires a “willful suspension of disbelief.” All this should make the debate over the war this fall—like the war itself—protracted and ugly.