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."
Growing tension. In speaking about Iraq, McCain is upbeat. "We succeeded militarily to pacify or bring under a security environment large parts of the country," he told one rally. "Now, we're succeeding politically." But White says that McCain is "dangerously overselling" both the security and political progress. The Sunni "awakening," which has been by far the most pivotal factor in reducing violence, could easily be reversed. Former Sunni insurgents are being paid with U.S. cash to help keep the peace, but tensions are growing between Iraq's largely Shiite security forces and the Sunni squads. "If we continue the withdrawals, we are going to have these squads in political limbo and with tremendous hostility to the Shiites, running more often into Shiite-dominated security forces," says White. "We are going to have more and more incidents."
On the political side, many of the reconciliation benchmarks Bush laid out last year remain unfulfilled. Bush and McCain have touted a law passed by Iraq's parliament aimed at bringing the mostly Sunni former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into government posts. But the final version of the law has a provision that could make things worse by allowing the sacking of many former Baath members currently employed by the government. "I think it's all smoke and mirrors," says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, "but who in America is actually going to follow this kind of thing?"
Troop levels are shaping up as the big campaign battleground, but it's not clear the candidates' policies would, in practice, be all that different. McCain, who six months after the invasion started calling for Bush to send more troops, has not been specific about his plans for future deployments. But his robust rhetoric will run up against the massive toll that six years in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on the U.S. military. The next president could inherit as many as 15 combat brigades, or 135,000 troops, including support personnel, in Iraq, a level most military experts believe cannot be sustained for long. If the mission doesn't shift from active combat to more of a monitoring role by the end of 2009, "the strain on the Army and the Marine Corps will reach the point where there are serious questions about whether the forces can sustain a prolonged deployment," says Cordesman.
If a McCain administration might have trouble sustaining such high troop levels, the Democrats will have just as much trouble meeting their own ambitious withdrawal timetables. Both Clinton and Obama have proposed pulling out troops at the rate of one or two brigades, or up to 16,000 soldiers, a month.
That pace is about as fast as the U.S. military could pull out, says retired Gen. Jack Keane, a backer of the surge, adding, "It is a precipitous withdrawal if executed regardless of consequences." Another retired general, Barry McCaffrey, says that while troop levels will have to fall, going below 80,000 troops is risky. "That's almost damn near the floor," he says. In the past, when U.S. troops have left areas, violence has flared. If this happens again, both candidates have conceded that withdrawals could be suspended. "Obama has said that if a genocide starts, that's an international problem that needs an international solution," says retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, an Obama adviser. "That's not sectarian violence but crimes against humanity."
Both Clinton and Obama have talked about using troop withdrawals as a lever to force Iraqis to accelerate reconciliation or face even greater chaos. But that could backfire if Iraqi leaders decide they are not ready. "If you try to force them to compromise, and they still don't, then the other possibility is massive ethnic cleansing," says Cole.
Limited options. Beyond the pace, neither is talking about full withdrawal. Their plans allow for significant numbers of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to protect U.S. interests, go after terrorists, and, perhaps, train Iraqi forces.
Whoever winds up president will inherit a situation with uncomfortably limited options. "We really have a remarkably slight ability to determine the future of Iraq," says Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University. "If the Iraqis determine it's going to be a bloody future, sooner or later they're going to have that civil war. If their leaders decide that civil war needs to be avoided, they'll find a way to cut a deal."
With Anna Mulrine