By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
September 22, 2008
Gen. David Petraeus, admitting frustration at the war's slow progress, predicted that the size of the U.S. force in Iraq would remain largely unchanged for the foreseeable future. American troops were dying at a rate of two or three a day. And one-third of voters said in a Gallup poll that Iraq would be the determining issue in who they'd vote for in November.
Against that backdrop, the two future presidential nominees couldn't have been further apart. Sen. Barack Obama was calling for an immediate troop withdrawal; Sen. John McCain was warning that a date for withdrawal would be "a date for surrender."
What a difference a year makes.
Today, Iraq is quieter, a turn that most experts attribute to the increase in troop strength and a renunciation of violence by U.S.-paid Sunni militias and rogue Shiite groups. Just eight American troops were killed in action in Iraq in July, the lowest level since the war began, and just 12 were killed in August.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, wants all American troops out of the country by 2011, and President Bush has ordered 8,000 troops withdrawn from Iraq by February and thousands of Iraq-bound soldiers and Marines diverted to Afghanistan.
And Obama and McCain are no longer polar opposites on the war.
"The differences between the two sides are becoming muddled by actions on the part of the (Bush) administration, even more so by acts on the part of the Iraqi government," said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst. And that, he said, makes it difficult to sort out which candidate has the best overall feel for the situation in Iraq.
As Obama and McCain have sought to adapt to a rapidly changing situation, each has made statements that some analysts have interpreted as showing they are moving toward each other on Iraq strategy.
Obama has emphasized he will seek guidance from military leaders on the pace of withdrawal and has talked about succeeding in Iraq, not just leaving. McCain, when pressed, recently called al-Maliki's timeline "pretty good" and, in a speech about his hypothetical first term, said most U.S. troops could be home by 2012.
But experts say the uncertainty of where events in Iraq are leading is making it impossible for either candidate to definitively identify the best course for dealing with the war, because whoever captures the White House will face an Iraq that will have little in common with the Iraq of yesterday -- or today.
"We don't even know what Iraq looks like today, honestly," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an Obama supporter. "The troop debate and timeline and other things are just a simplistic way to present a package to the American public."
Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a McCain supporter, agreed that the situation is fluid.
"Iraq is entering into a period of great political flux," he said. "What Maliki says today could easily be overtaken by events or entirely irrelevant six months or nine months from now."
On Jan. 21, the new president may find that a withdrawal plan between Iraq and the United States is already in place, or he may inherit an Iraq plunging back into bloody civil war. Or anything in between.
The result is that McCain and Obama are left talking mostly about their past positions, with McCain emphasizing his support for the "surge" when it was politically unpopular and Obama recalling his opposition to the war from the start when many Democrats in Congress were voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
And each has tended to use any new development in Iraq as a means to bolster his position.
The plan on Obama's Web site calls for pulling all combat troops out of Iraq by 2010, save a residual counter-terrorism force, and putting more troops in Afghanistan. When Bush announced plans to shift troops to Afghanistan, the Democratic candidate commended him for "moving in (his) direction" but said he didn't go far enough.
McCain's plan calls for continuing the surge, which the Republican candidate calls the critical element of recent success in Iraq. At the same time, he wants to push for more political reconciliation. He rejects setting a date for withdrawal. And as violence has declined, he has repeatedly credited the surge, overlooking what critics say are other factors in stemming the killing.
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