Fighting Words

Oh, Lucky Man

Why Obama’s attitude on the surge hasn’t harmed his campaign.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

It’s almost certainly too late, after his coronation tour of the Middle East and Europe, to amend the story and to show precisely how and why the conventional wisdom about Barack Obama and the surge is wrong, but just out of curmudgeonly pedantry, let me attempt the task.

On Feb. 21, Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton had one of their “debates” in Austin, Texas. The question of the surge—just then beginning to show serious and lasting results—came up. Sen. Clinton, of course, having apparently been decisively out-lefted by Obama at the beginning of the campaign, felt compelled to put the sourest face on all matters Iraqi. And then Campbell Brown of CNN asked the following question:

Sen. Obama, in the same vein, you were also opposed to the surge from the beginning. Were you wrong?

At that point, sitting at home, I suddenly realized what Obama ought to do if he wanted to show that he was capable of thinking on his feet and stealing a march on his rivals. He should praise the surge without withdrawing from his opposition to the war. And so he did, in the following words:

Well, I think it is indisputable that we’ve seen violence reduced in Iraq. And that’s a credit to our brave men and women in uniform. In fact, you know, the First Cavalry, out of Fort Hood, played an enormous role in pushing back al-Qaida out of Baghdad. [APPLAUSE] And, you know, we honor their service. But this is a tactical victory imposed upon a huge strategic blunder. [LAUGHTER] And I think that when we’re having a debate with John McCain, it is going to be much easier for the candidate who was opposed to the concept of invading Iraq in the first place to have a debate about the wisdom of that decision [APPLAUSE] than having to argue about the tactics subsequent to the decision. [LAUGHTER]

Not bad for a performance in the liberal-skewed primaries and (with its rather obvious nod to the local heroes of Fort Hood) not entirely unpremeditated, either. I felt almost sure that this—”Obama Has Kind Words for Surge”—would be the headline next day. Instead, there was no mention of it to speak of, and most people with whom I later talked seemed not to have noticed the moment at all. In some way, the notion that Obama was beating Sen. Clinton mainly because he was more anti-war than she was the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story; and no statement that was in any way incompatible with it could be considered newsworthy. I took this up with the late Tim Russert, who shrugged a bit and added that the line of the evening—”Change you can Xerox,” a vulgar taunt about Obama’s alleged plagiarism from Sen. Clinton via Sidney Blumenthal—had swiftly become the agreed headline among those who decide these things. Really, there are times one is ashamed to be in the profession.

However, it isn’t just the famous “liberal bias” that explains all this groupthink and on-the-spot editing. The right wing had no interest in highlighting Obama’s nuanced position in Austin, either, because there was (and is) a conservative interest in painting Obama as a heedless and irresponsible pacifist, with absolutely no experience of crashing an expensive aircraft on the territory of a country on which the United States had never declared war.

In fact, the worst you can say of Obama’s position on Iraq (where we also didn’t declare war but where we did have a long series of U.N. resolutions putting the Saddam Hussein regime outside international law) is that he was a member of that quite large and undistinguished group that constituted the president’s fair-weather wartime friends. Shortly after Baghdad had fallen at a then-cost of perhaps 100 U.S. fatalities, he said publicly that there was no serious difference between the Bush position and his own. It was only by retro-engineering his politics, and pointing to a speech he had made in Chicago very much earlier in the Iraq debate, that he was able to create the idea that he had been both braver and more prescient than his rivals for the nomination.

According to your taste, then, this succession of local and national and now international shifts and adaptations makes Obama either a very ordinary politician or a highly extraordinary one. The timing of events in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to make him an astonishingly fortunate nominee. And fortunate, too, it must be said, in his opponent. Sen. John McCain could have said gravely that only the surge made the talk of American withdrawal—whether it came from Nouri al-Maliki or Obama—possible in the first place. He could have taken Obama’s words from last February, about the 1st Cavalry vanquishing al-Qaida, and used them wryly and dryly to congratulate the younger man on being willing to learn. Instead, he peppered everything but the target with the inaccurate charge that Obama had always been anti-war and anti-surge. Obama may indeed have been serially for them after he was against them, but that’s different from (and better than) the other way around.

The cliché for the Obama phenomenon is jujitsu, where the strength of your opponent is precisely what you use against him. McCain had one particular strength when this campaign began: his fortitude in respect of Iraq, which entailed (as some people forget) his willingness to criticize the commander in chief in time of war. Now he is in real danger of confusing the two things and trying to make criticism or disagreement appear to be suspect in themselves. If last week hasn’t taught him that this is a doomed tactic—and strategy—then he is unteachable.