The National Catholic Review

Barack Obama’s tour of Afghanistan and Iraq is already paying dividends politically. The pictures of enthusiastic troops cheering him on were worth a thousand words: He is no peacenik a la Jane Fonda. Ditto the photos of Obama in a helicopter with General David Petraeus. They may not agree about strategy but they appeared to be enjoying each others’ company. And, standing alongside Obama in virtually every photograph is Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, giving a bipartisan glow to the trip.

No one could have counted on the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki all but endorsing Obama’s withdrawal plans. Al-Maliki may be wrong, he may be right, he may be posturing for domestic political effect or not, but the stance of the Iraqi government makes the Bush administration’s posture untenable. You can’t argue that you are fighting for a stable, democratic Iraq and then ignore the wishes of the democratically elected Iraqi government.

John McCain has sought to turn the focus on Iraq into a plus for his campaign. He has questioned Obama’s sophistication and experience by noting that Obama opposed the surge in Iraq that McCain helped to craft. McCain asserts that the surge has worked, and Obama should have seen that it would. But, the surge had two related aims, first a reduction in violence that would permit, secondly, a political conciliation. Violence has been reduced, although Obama correctly noted that this had as much to so with radical anti-American Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s order to his Mahdi army to stand down, an order that he is threatening to rescind and with Petraeus’s successful efforts to get certain Sunni tribal leaders to distance themselves from the insurgents.

But, where is the political reconciliation and, if there is now sufficient reconciliation to say that the surge worked, why are American troops still needed? This is the conundrum for McCain. When he says that the surge “worked” Americans expect that to mean we are just about finished and can bring our troops home.

There is another side to Obama’s political victory which is that his visit to Afghanistan coincided with the military’s call for more troops to stabilize that country. And there are no more troops. Somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan Osama bin Laden is still in hiding. And our military is so tied down in Iraq, there is nothing we can do to catch him.

Back in the fall of 2002, when the debate about going to war in Iraq was going on in Congress, a few stalwart souls pointed out that Iraq had not attacked the United States on 9/11 and that Iraq was one of the few Arab countries where radical Islamicists had no foothold. But, President Bush convinced the nation that we needed to start a war in Iraq and that such a war would bring stability to the region and help in the war on terror. In fact, the war in Iraq has taken our eye off the ball in the war on terror and so bogged us down that the U.S. has no troops to send to Afghanistan today.

John McCain must now pay the price of George Bush’s folly. And, Barack Obama can reap the benefit of the internal contradictions in the GOP position. There is no denying that Obama’s timing has proven a bit lucky. But, whenever Napoleon’s aids brought him the name of a general to be promoted, complete with a resume showing his education and intelligence, Napoleon would ask, “Yes, but is he lucky?” There is no plan for Obama to visit Napoleon’s tomb in Paris when he arrives there later this week, but the Senator from Illinois has shown the value of good luck in negotiating his own political battlefield this week.

Michael Sean Winters