For one shining moment last week, John McCain and Barack Obama had precisely the same position on the Iraq war: They expected to get U. S. combat forces out within 16 months of taking office.
Ought we be hopeful that the country will have two peace candidates?
“A pretty good timetable,” McCain called it, though he would later insist, wrongly, that he had never used the word “timetable” and that anyway he had not intended to be so definite.
They were matched on the nuances, too. McCain had added a proviso to the withdrawal timetable, that “they have to be based on conditions on the ground.” That was essentially what Sen. Obama said on Nov. 17, 2007, when he described the general timetable for withdrawal, which he said depended on the Bush administration drawing down forces to about 100,000 when he leaves office (that looks about right), continuing improvement in Iraqi security forces (that is happening) and adjusted troop withdrawals of one or two brigades a month “based on advice from the military officers in the field.”
It requires some fine parsing to find any daylight between the positions of the men on peace in Iraq on that day, or at least at that moment. McCain was being interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who asked him about the Iraqi government's enthusiastic endorsement of Obama's timetable.
McCain tried to take it all back later when it was pointed out that he was embracing the same idea that he had been describing as traitorous. He said Obama's plan amounted to putting his own election ahead of the safety of the country.
If it does not represent his real thinking, one of three things occurred: It was another unthinking blunder by a perpetually weary man, like his mention last week of the “Iraq-Pakistan border” (it doesn't exist), his mistaken linking of Iran and al Qaeda, his attribution of the co-option of Sunni tribes in the battle against al Qaeda to the surge (it preceded the surge), or his mention last week of “President” (rather than Prime Minister) Putin. He may have been caught off guard and could find no way to dispute the Iraqi prime minister and his government since he had said that the United States should leave if the Iraq government wanted it to. President Bush had undermined him only two days earlier by describing how the country ought to leave Iraq according to a “time horizon.”
Third, he may have simply got ahead of himself.
It could be any of those, but I think it's the third. He would reach that position over time, by imperceptible stages, before the election, like Richard Nixon's campaign promise in 1968 to bring honorable peace in Vietnam quickly after his election. McCain just did not have the finesse to pull it off. That, of course, may give him too much credit.
But it is a matter of history. When the United States is embroiled in an unpopular war the men who get elected are the ones who say they will end the war and the ones who say they will not go to war. Iraq is the most unpopular war in at least a century.
George W. Bush promised in 2000 never to use U. S. forces for nation building. Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War within six months of taking office. Dwight Eisenhower opposed the Korean War and promised in 1952 to “go to Korea” if he was elected and bring the war to an early end. Franklin D. Roosevelt promised in 1940 to keep the United States out of World War II. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of World War I. William McKinley, or at least his party, promised to end the Philippine-American War within 60 days of his re-election in 1900. It was critical to the election of every one of them.
Only Eisenhower may be said to have kept his promise, although American troops are still there 55 years later. He did reach a quick armistice with the communists.
The record of war promises is not heartening, but the record of American voters is. McCain is running now on a single issue, standing tall on war, because he has compromised almost every other question, foreign and domestic, on which he has ever staked a position. Unless a substantial quotient of voters finds it impossible to vote for a black man, which none of us should rule out, a candidate who favors endless war cannot be elected. Not a war that has despoiled the country's values, undermined its economy, fouled its honor among nations and made the world more dangerous.
The old bullheaded John McCain seemed an unlikely man to make such a drastic pivot as to become an apostle of peace. But if he was willing to change on everything else why not the one thing that might win the election? The big question, as with Dick Nixon, would be if he meant it.