Big Deal? No … Bigger

I’ve spent a couple hours now trying to process the probable impact of Prime Minister al Maliki’s explicit endorsement of Barack Obama’s 16 month timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. My first instinct is always to try not to overstate the impact of momentary developments. But I don’t think it’s enough to say this is a huge development. It’s huger than that. In a stroke, I think, al Maliki has cut McCain off at the knees in a way I’m not sure his campaign strategy can recover from.

Consider McCain’s strategy, which is all bound up with Iraq.

All understand it is a given that the war is unpopular and that the vast majority of Americans want out as soon as possible. The big of wiggle room is just what’s ‘possible.’ McCain has invested his entire campaign in support for the purportedly nascent Iraqi democracy al Maliki represents and the claim that Obama’s support for a timetable for withdrawal irresponsibly risks losing the gains we’ve achieved and giving Iraq back to al Qaeda.

Here, with a brush of the hand and in so many words, al Maliki says, “No, we’re good.”

What exactly is McCain to say to that? He can hardly turn against Maliki or say he doesn’t have a feel of the situation on the ground.

What’s more, he’s given Obama want amounts to a potent new talking point by defining American redeployment out of Iraq as ‘victory’. Says Maliki: “So far the Americans have had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal, because they feel it would appear tantamount to an admission of defeat. But that isn’t the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory, of a severe blow we have inflicted on al-Qaida and the militias.”

I don’t doubt that the McCain will come up with some pat response, though their silence so far does signal the difficulty of coming up with it. But McCain’s campaign has been almost entirely dedicated to raising doubts about a withdrawal strategy the great majority would like to embrace. And Maliki has now handed Obama the trump card of all trump cards with which to parry all of McCain’s attacks.

I would not discount the possibility that the White House will muscle Maliki into a retraction of some sort. But I think it will be difficult for that to seem to be anything other than what it is. What he said pre-waterboarding will always appear more genuine than whatever statement came later. McCain may also say that his ‘surge’ strategy is what made all this possible. But fundamentally that’s not a point Obama is arguing. The debate is about whether or not to leave. And on that count, Maliki has now placed McCain is an extremely precarious position.

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