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The War That Didn't Bark
A surge that helped Iraq -- and eventually Barack Obama

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

AS THE COUNTRY votes today in an election dominated by economic issues, it is worth pointing out the problem that did not, after all, overshadow the presidential race: the war in Iraq. According to the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll published yesterday, just 9 percent of likely voters said Iraq was the most important issue in their choice for president, compared with 51 percent who cited the economy. That's a dramatic change from the 2006 midterm election, in which Iraq ranked first among voters' concerns, with 27 percent in a Pew poll citing it as the biggest issue. Even in 2004, more than 20 percent picked it.

The reason for that shift was encapsulated in a story The Post and other news organizations reported without fanfare over the weekend. In October, 13 American soldiers died in Iraq, a total that tied with August for the lowest monthly toll of the war. The number of Iraqis killed was almost certainly also the lowest in more than five years -- 288, by the count of the Web site iCasualties.org. In October 2006, 106 American troops and at least 1,539 Iraqis died. Simply put, the situation in Iraq has been transformed in the past two years, and voters recognize it. While 63 percent said in a November 2006 poll reported in Newsweek that the United States was "losing ground" in Iraq, 53 percent said in a New York Times-CBS poll last week that the war was going "somewhat well" or "very well."

The irony is that the reversal of fortunes came about after President Bush ignored the message from 2006 voters and the Democratic congressional majority they elected. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, Mr. Bush launched the "surge" for which Republican John McCain had been pressing. Yet the biggest beneficiary of its success is not Mr. Bush, whose popularity is as low as ever, or Mr. McCain, but Democrat Barack Obama. Mr. Obama gained traction early in the Democratic primary campaign by stressing his opposition to the war and support for a 16-month withdrawal timetable. By the time his general election competition with Mr. McCain began, Iraq had faded as an issue. Mr. Obama's withdrawal proposal, which would have triggered a catastrophe in 2007 and still looked irresponsible a few months ago, now does not sound that different from what the Iraqi government and the Bush administration have lately been negotiating.

There remain important differences between Mr. Obama's strategy and that espoused by U.S. commanders and Iraqi leaders. We hope that, if elected, Mr. Obama will embrace the prudent conditionality that those commanders support and at which Mr. Obama so far has only hinted. But today is not the day for detailed policy advice. Suffice it instead today to be grateful that the president-elect will inherit a war that has gone from the brink of disaster to a path toward success -- and to give thanks, above all, to the servicemen and women and their family members who have sacrificed incalculably to make that turnaround possible.

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