Clinton and Obama Can't Count On Iraq to Win the White House

McCain has an easier task appealing to voters on the war.

Protests in Washington, D.C., marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Protests in Washington, D.C., marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

By + More

It was not all that long ago when it looked as if Iraq was going to dominate the 2008 presidential campaign, a situation that seemed to make just about any Democratic nominee a shoo-in. In early 2007, President Bush was pouring more troops into Iraq even as dozens of corpses were turning up on Iraqi streets each morning. The U.S. death toll was mounting fast. And both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama declared that the United States should not "baby-sit a civil war."

What a difference a year makes in American politics. Violence has dropped across the board from the frenetic peaks of last year, following a shift in U.S. strategy and the deployment of additional soldiers. Sen. John McCain, who with his warm embrace of Bush's surge strategy had been nearly counted out, now throws around words like success and victory when discussing Iraq as the presumptive Republican nominee. The improving security situation, as fragile as it may be, has also cooled the public's anger. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in late February found that 48 percent of Americans say the military effort is going very or fairly well, up from 30 percent in early 2007.

Still, from here on out, the candidates will all be hostage to the news from Iraq. Violent street battles in Basra in late March, for example, sparked fears that a tenuous cease-fire with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could unravel, which might make Iraq more of a factor in the election. The death toll for U.S. soldiers also hit 4,000, although the death rate is down from last year. Barring a resurgence in violence, the political battle will largely be one of perception—of whether or not Iraqis are making real progress toward stability. "There is always the possibility of reversals," says Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If that happens, the dynamics in the election could change quite rapidly." The key factor is where independent voters stand. Pew found that almost half of them now favor keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, versus a rapid withdrawal.

Indeed, McCain is staking his campaign on being able to convince even more independents that Iraq can be won. "Senator McCain's view has been that as long as success is possible in Iraq, we owe it to the troops and our interests to move towards success," says Randy Scheunemann, McCain's foreign-policy adviser. "That doesn't mean there aren't going to be bumps on the road, but I don't think the security situation is so tenuous that a single incident like the Samarra mosque bombing will turn things around." Scheunemann is referring to the February 2006 attack that prompted an extended period of sectarian bloodletting. Still, McCain once blurted out that if he can't convince people that the U.S. strategy is working, "I lose."

For the Democrats, it's more complicated. It's easy enough for them to attack McCain's optimism. "The challenge for Senator McCain will be to explain why, if the surge strategy is working, it requires us to maintain the same number of troops as before," says Lee Feinstein, the national security director for Clinton's campaign. But they also need to satisfy their party's antiwar wing without looking defeatist. The Democrats' emerging plan is to link the financial cost of the Iraq war to economic woes at home. Obama and Clinton regularly claim that the war's price tag has grown as high as $12 billion a month. "They will try to make Iraq an economic issue," says Douglas Foyle, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University. "The economy will be the Democrats' strong side, especially against McCain." But the protracted primary battle has delayed the effective launch of this message.

On the campaign trail, McCain is still trying to live down his statement in January that U.S. troops could stay in Iraq for 100 years. "That would be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed," he said, offering U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan as examples. McCain advisers say he is not calling for permanent bases in Iraq, but he has also conspicuously declined to rule them out. "Once we get to where the war's won," says Scheunemann, "it's not going to be the flash point in American politics." But bases have always been controversial in Iraq. "The fact that Iraq's monarchy gave Britain the right to maintain a presence in Iraq was one of the reasons the monarchy was brought down," says Wayne White, a former lead Iraq analyst at the State Department's intelligence bureau. "The Iraqi people are very proud and don't want permanent bases."