McCain's Focus on Iraq War Carries Risk

McCain is quick to praise success in Iraq. But many voters say the war there should never have been fought, which was the position of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.
McCain is quick to praise success in Iraq. But many voters say the war there should never have been fought, which was the position of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- The 55-page Republican Party platform, approved here this week, contains exactly one paragraph devoted to the war in Iraq -- a sign of how the conflict that dominated the last two national election cycles has faded as a major political issue.

But as Sen. John McCain launches his fall campaign at the GOP convention, he is clearly signaling that he intends to focus on the war to make the case that he offers greater courage, wisdom and foreign policy experience than his Democratic opponent.

Several of the convention's major speakers, including President Bush, have trumpeted McCain's support of last year's "surge" of U.S. forces into Iraq as an example of the judgment McCain would exhibit as commander in chief. Despite negative public opinion regarding the new strategy at the time, the troop buildup dramatically improved security in Iraq, they said.

"In the single biggest policy decision of this election, John McCain got it right and Barack Obama got it wrong," former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani told the delegates Wednesday night.

Obama opposed the surge, a stance McCain campaign manager Rick Davis called one of the "clearest differences" between the two candidates. "Barack Obama would not have done that, and we would have Armageddon in the Middle East today," Davis said in an interview Tuesday.

Refocusing the public on Iraq represents a gamble for the McCain campaign, exposing the Republican candidate to questions about his original decision to support the war, as Obama suggested in his own speech last week at his party's convention in Denver. In the 2006 midterm elections, public opposition to the war was a decisive factor in dealing the GOP a severe defeat.

Vin Weber, the Republican former congressman from Minnesota, expressed uncertainty that assertiveness on Iraq would help McCain politically because so many Americans -- 63 percent in the last Washington Post-ABC News poll -- think the war was not worth fighting in the first place.

"I think it's terrific that the surge has been successful. It helps us. I think Obama does have a ridiculous position, which is 'the surge has worked, but I wouldn't have done it,' " said Weber, who is attending the Republican convention this week. "But in order for us to win the argument about Iraq, we have to convince people it was the right thing to do in the first place, and that's the problem."

Obama campaign officials emphasize that McCain remains the odd man out on Iraq policy because of his refusal to commit to a specific withdrawal plan, noting that the Bush administration recently agreed to a plan to remove all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by 2011. Although Bush has said the plan is different from what he calls politically inspired Democratic timetables, Obama officials counter that it looks much like their plan to remove combat brigades at a rate of one a month for the first 15 months of an Obama administration.

"We used to be having a debate not of when we were going to get out of Iraq but if we were going to get out of Iraq, and that's all changed," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs. "John McCain seems to be the lone holdout. He seems to be the only person who wants to stay indefinitely in Iraq."

Perhaps mindful of the potential fallout, some of McCain's surrogates this week are emphasizing that there is an end in sight for the war, even if their candidate has not specified a time frame. In his prime-time address Tuesday night, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said McCain's support for the troop buildup meant that "America's troops are coming home, thousands of them, and they're coming home in honor."

Lieberman elaborated in a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis. "The goal has always been to leave, but not to leave on a politically mandated timetable from Washington," Lieberman said. "There's a story that's not much told, but the 30,000-plus troops that were sent beginning in early 2007 as part of the surge are home, and they are not being replaced. . . . The sooner we are out, the better."

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