A new election-year coalition with plans to spend millions to combat John McCain’s candidacy and to highlight the costs of the Iraq War was announced this week in Washington. Called the Iraq Campaign, the effort marks a resurgence of MoveOn and staff-based campaigning backed by SEIU and well-heeled liberal donors.
MoveOn also plans an independent campaign. In a January 17 memo, MoveOn’s executive director Eli Pariser sketched the group’s 2008 goals as: taking the fight to prowar senators and threatening them with “political extinction”; “keeping the pressure on Democrats in Congress to block blank checks”; “making sure that our next president has a clear mandate on Iraq.”
The new coalition’s plans are based on polling by Democratic consultant Anna Greenberg, with special attention to independent voters and “battleground states” lost by John Kerry in 2004.
At the same time, a loose group of “first-tier” Democratic Congressional aspirants is considering a common platform based on “a responsible plan for ending the war Iraq,” which calls for the withdrawal of all American troops and advisers, not simply combat troops.
It’s assumed that the burgeoning costs of Iraq will be decisive in influencing the choices of independent or vacillating voters, especially against Republican candidates who speak of the Iraq occupation lasting many more years.
The stepped-up activity, six months after the disbanding of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, comes as new polls show McCain leading both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Though a majority of voters now believe the war was not worth fighting, about half say that McCain is better qualified to handle Iraq than either Democratic candidate, according to new numbers recently released by the Los Angeles Times.
McCain himself calls Iraq the issue that will determine his fate. He will receive another big boost when Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress in April that the American military effort is succeeding and should be continued. The percentage of Americans who believe the US surge is “making the situation better” has doubled since last July, from 22 percent to 43 percent, according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll. Based on falling American casualty rates, McCain will contend that both Obama and Clinton were wrong in opposing the surge in January 2007, and that he should get credit for standing up for the military escalation when it was an unpopular stance for a presidential candidate.
What he won’t mention is that the declining American casualty rate in Iraq is based on factors other than the increased US troop presence, especially the cease-fire called by Moktada al-Sadr’s forces and the decision by many Sunni insurgents to go after Al Qaeda with American funding and collaboration. Those factors could change, but they are consistent with Petraeus’s counterinsurgency warfare doctrines. In addition, Petraeus has proven himself to be highly sensitive to the American electoral calendar in the past, and his 2007/2008 counterinsurgency campaign is a contribution to gaining time for the US occupation during an electoral season, or as Petraeus often says, “setting back the American clock.” Put simply, the hawks’ overall strategy for 2008 always has been to sharply reduce American casualties in the election year, no matter what bloodshed lies ahead. The same strategy was pursued by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.
Both Democratic candidates seem locked into a commitment to withdraw American combat troops in something like sixteen to eighteen months of taking office. They are ambiguous so far on how many advisers and trainers they would leave behind, but the numbers could be a staggering 50,000 to 100,000 if all back-up forces are counted, suggesting a shift from a direct combat mission to one of counterinsurgency.
Furthermore, Obama, like Kerry in 2004, is arguing that US combat troops should be withdrawn from Iraq so they can be deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the prospects of a military “victory” are difficult to see. McCain will be able to counter that “giving up” in Iraq is hardly the way to carry the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban elsewhere. Meanwhile, Bush, the CIA and the Pentagon have not given up hope of targeting and killing Osama bin Laden before the November election.