Stepping Back

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I believe we’re at one of those moments when it is a help to step back from the rhetorical flurry and see where each side stands — call it clearing away the Fog of Spin.

The Iraq War is very unpopular. The majority of the country believes it was a mistake to have invaded in the first place. And the great majority want to get all of our troops out of Iraq in the near future. These are facts amply supported by what is now years of public opinion data. While it is true that the reduction in violence over the last 8-9 months has led to some shift in how people think ‘things are going’ in Iraq, it has had no measurable effect on the key questions: should we be there in the first place (no) and should we leave now (yes.)

This is the only backdrop against which to understand the current jousting over the semantics of the Iraq debate.

We have two candidates with starkly different positions. Barack Obama is for an orderly and considered withdrawal of all US combat forces in Iraq, a process he says he will begin immediately upon taking office. John McCain supports a permanent garrisoning of US troops on military bases in Iraq — a long-term ‘presence’ which he hopes will require a constantly-diminishing amount of actual combat and thus an ever-diminishing toll in American lives.

This is, I believe, a fair and even generous description of each candidate’s essential position. And the recital makes the key point clear: McCain’s position is squarely on the wrong side of public opinion — in fact, to an overwhelming degree.

This is why the McCain campaign spends what seems almost literally to be all its time (with tractable reporters in tow) scrutinizing the rhetorical entrails of Obama’s every statement trying to find some movement or contradiction or frankly anything that can be talked about to keep everybody’s attention (press, commentators, citizens, precocious teenagers) off the fact that McCain’s position on Iraq is wildly unpopular and even more what McCain’s position actually is.

Because of this, on Iraq, McCain’s entire campaign is based on a strategy of constant obfuscation — a strategy that has become much more aggressive in the wake of what the McCain campaign is calling last week’s “relaunch” with a new staff based around Rove proteges from President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Now, before concluding, let me say a few words more about the nature of this dodge. As noted yesterday, despite the AP’s sloppy reporting, Obama has been quite consistent on proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But let’s back up and come at the question another way. If 16 months is no good, is there anyone out there ideologically committed to 12 or 20 months. Or for that matter, since few of us in the general population have a good understanding of the operational details of how you withdraw well over 100,000 military personnel from a country like Iraq, why is it not enough for a presidential candidate simply to say, I’ll change the policy on the day I get into office. And that means I’m going to begin an orderly and considered withdrawal of our troops and have it done as soon as possible.

Now, I can already hear a lot of people rising to the bait and saying, ‘No, we need specifics, a timetable, a date certain, because we’ve been hearing this for years — that we’ll be out as soon as we can, as soon as this that or the other happens.’

And I’d agree.

But this makes the point. Most people who are so keyed into specifics and hard deadlines are that way because we’ve had five years of a policy of deliberate deception in which vague promises of bringing the troops home in the pretty near future are hung out in front of the public’s collective nose as a means of obscuring the real policy of keeping American troops in Iraq permanently as a way of securing oil reserves and projecting US power and in the region.

And that brings us squarely to our other point. What McCain’s offering is exactly the same thing — vague suggestions about troops coming home to toss dust in people’s eyes about his real policy (which he’s occasionally candid about) which is keeping US troops in Iraq permanently. So for instance, last week, when McCain’s campaign pushed the nonsensical claim that Obama had embraced McCain’s position, their release stated that Obama had…

now adopted John McCain’s position that we cannot risk the progress we have made in Iraq by beginning to withdraw our troops immediately without concern for conditions on the ground.

Again, a few clauses floating in the air to try to game people into thinking that McCain’s actually for withdrawing American troops from Iraq too, just a bit more responsibly, with a little more “concern for conditions on the ground” and so forth, when in fact he’s for keeping American troops there permanently.

Even the fine scrutiny of Obama’s language threads back to the last five years of policy by deliberate lying, which McCain is now carrying on.

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