Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threw Sen. John McCain a political curve ball recently when he demanded that the United States accept a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops as a condition for a new security agreement with Washington to replace the United Nations mandate for the presence of U.S. forces that expires on Dec. 31.
Mr. Maliki’s announcement has radically undermined Mr. McCain’s attacks against Sen. Barack Obama’s advocating a withdrawal timetable - “fine tuned” or not -and, worse, Mr. McCain flubbed a great opportunity to use Mr. Maliki’s call for a “timetable” to his advantage.
On July 7, during an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Maliki stated “The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or… to put a timetable on their withdrawal.”
This position was further hardened the next day when Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie said, “We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn’t have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq.”
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, Mr. McCain response to this announcement was to lamely state “We will be able to withdraw. Gen. [David] Petraeus is going to tell us in July when he thinks we are.” In other words, Mr. McCain is saying “who cares what the Iraqis think, our generals know better and they, not the Iraqi’s elected representatives, will make the decision about when and how many U.S. troops will come home.”
What Mr. McCain should have said - and can still convincingly argue - is that “thanks to the success of troop surge strategy, we have succeeded in creating conditions in Iraq that now make Maliki’s demand for withdrawal time line possible.”
Mr. McCain needs to get his foreign policy rhetoric and goals in sync with the aspirations of American voters. Notwithstanding the troop surge’s success, nearly two-thirds of the American people still believe either the war was a mistake or its occupation was enormously inept. What voters want is an exit strategy - and the sooner, the better.
Instead of insulting the democratic choice and sovereignty of the Iraqi people, Mr. McCain should seize upon Mr. Maliki’s statement to exploit the success of the surge as rationale to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. McCain can convincingly argue that he was the originator of the surge policy and point to all the indices of its success: less violence and increased reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias, dramatically lower casualties for both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, the strengthening of Iraqi security forces and their enhanced control of the country, a stronger and more stable democratic government, etc.
Based upon these achievements, Mr. McCain should now claim he is committed to working with Prime Minister Maliki in establishing a time line for the earliest possible withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades. By taking this track, Mr. McCain can reassure the American people there is indeed “light at the end of the tunnel” and that he plans to build on the continued success of the surge to justify this drawdown.
Mr. McCain also needs to realize that, absent a withdrawal strategy, the surge’s success has very limited, political value. People are not inclined to “reward” Mr. McCain for a surge strategy that finally, after numerous and costly occupation mistakes, is remedying a debacle they concluded was gigantic error from Day One.
Until Mr, McCain can connect the dots for voters, i.e., , war-weary voters are going to pull the lever for Mr. Obama. Especially given voter’s fears and concerns over the economy, the last thing they want to hear about is how the United States is going to commit itself to an ongoing and costly drain of resources in the Middle East.
Finally, if the Iraqi prime minister and the overwhelming majority of his compatriots want a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops - two recent polls show roughly 70 percent of Iraqis want U.S. forces to leave - is it not about time we respected their democratic wishes? If not, then why did we sacrifice so much blood and treasure to provide them that freedom of choice? No doubt these questions will be on many voter’s minds come November. Mr. McCain better have some answers.
Gary L. Jarmin is a Republican strategist and president of a government affairs consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.