A fractured electorate cannot unite behind candidates. The Republicans have their candidate (Boom, Boom McCain). The Democrats are divided by age, gender and race. In the murky results and polls it is hard to fathom the outcome. What is clear is that the Democratic race has mobilized vast numbers of previously disenchanted people to the polls. Some of this is the special charisma of Obama, but quite a lot of it is the general enthusiasm to vote for the first woman or the first African American with a shot at sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office.
On Iraq, however, there is unity. The electorate stands firmly in opposition to the war (64 percent), and a majority want withdrawal within the year (63 percent; 90 percent of registered Democrats). Yet, the three principle candidates are far from this position. John McCain is one of the principle architects of the Surge, and he has pledged to remain in Iraq for the next hundred years (or 10,000). There is no question, to his mind, that the US military will need to operate with permanent bases in Iraq. The small minority of Republicans who stood behind Ron Paul, far and away the only candidate who called for immediate withdrawal, will have no impact on the GOP platform this Fall.
Hilary Clinton supported the war, and generally remains in support of the policy of US primacy in the Middle East (her votes on Iran demonstrate this clearly). In February 2005, Clinton said, "I don't think it's useful to set a deadline [for withdrawal] because I think it sends a signal to the terrorists and the insurgents that they just have to wait us out." A year later, she said that a plan to withdraw is not "smart strategy," because it would not presage success. Barack Obama opposed the war at the start. In the Senate, however, he also balked at backing any bill that asked for an immediate withdrawal, saying that he would not support "precipitous withdrawal of our troops, driven by congressional edict."
The problem with the three leading candidates is not that they don't follow the will of the electorate. It is that they have misconstrued what is happening in Iraq. McCain and Clinton continue to talk about the need for victory or to withdraw with honor. But one can only declare victory based on some metrics, and the Iraq War and Occupation has been remarkable for its inconsistency on this score. We went in to topple the regime because of 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda, to build a nation, to build the Middle East on a democratic foundation: the rubrics have multiplied and confused most of us. What would victory look like? The Occupation has already failed to unearth weapons of mass destruction, it has certainly not squelched al-Qaeda (which is a global movement and not an Iraqi one), it has almost broken Iraq and it has delivered a strategic victory to Iran in the Middle East. There can be no victory out of this muddled policy, which is why McCain talks of a hundred year occupation by then we'd have forgotten that we had no original intent for the invasion.
Obama is trapped less by the call for victory than by fear that he would be seen to be backing defeat. I say, "yes we can" to Obama, and demand a true change of imagination in how the US makes foreign policy. A US military backed study in Iraq recently showed that the population there thinks much like the people here. They want an immediate troop withdrawal. What is most startling in the report is that they no longer see Saddam Hussein's regime as their main problem. "The current strife in Iraq seems to have totally eclipsed any agonies or grievances many Iraqis would have incurred from the past regime, which lasted for nearly four decades, as opposed to the current conflict which has lasted for five years." They want a new kind of regime change.
Obama is right to say that the US government should open direct talks with the Iranian regime, to lessen the tension on Iraq's eastern front, but at the same time the US must pledge to remove the troop presence in the country. Talk of victory in Iraq and of encircling China to provide US primacy needs to be withdrawn in favor of a genuine interest in multipolarity, in international democracy.
For Iraq, if we don't pledge to remove the troops soon, in the summer, as we gear up for the general election, there is every indication that Moqtada al Sadr's brigades will once more renew their offensive and drown the Surge.
From that sea of fear can only come more rancor, more fear and perhaps the presidency of John McCain.