McCain and Lieberman: ‘The Surge Worked’

Fresh off his come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire’s Republican primary, Sen. John McCain co-authored an op-ed published in today’s Wall Street Journal (the online opinion section of which, is now totally free) with Sen. Joe Lieberman. Their message: The surge has worked, but it’s unclear whether its gains can be sustained after the United States completes a planned drawdown to the pre-surge level of 15 brigades. Thus, they write, a hasty further drawdown would be risky:

Gen. Petraeus has already announced that five “surge” brigades will be withdrawn by mid-July. The process is now underway. The Pentagon has also announced that it is conducting a series of internal reviews to examine whether and when additional troops can be withdrawn — with Gen. Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command each asked to offer their own analysis. As the president awaits these recommendations, it is important for the rest of us to keep some realities in mind.

First, it is unknown whether the security gains we have achieved with the surge can be sustained — and deepened — after we have drawn down to 15 brigades. Until we know with certainty that we can keep al Qaeda on the run with 15 brigades, it would be a mistake to commit ourselves preemptively to a drawdown below that number.

As the surge should have taught us by now, troop numbers matter in Iraq. We should adjust those numbers based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders in Iraq — first and foremost, Gen. Petraeus, who above all others has proven that he knows how to steer this war to a successful outcome.

It would seem likely that the success of the surge, if it is sustained, will help McCain, who was one of the surge’s most steadfast supporters, in the general election if he manages to win the Republican nomination. As most of the other Republicans in the race (except perhaps Huckabee) have been just as unwavering in their support for remaining in Iraq, however, it’s difficult to argue that McCain’s support of the surge made the difference for him in New Hampshire or was the cause in general of his comeback.

In fact, as Amy Walter of the Hotline pointed out last night on the NewsHour, the numbers in New Hampshire show that McCain won among Republicans and independents who “strongly disapprove of the war” as well as among those who are steadfast war supporters. It’s a seeming contradiction, given McCain’s image as an Iraq stalwart, but perhaps makes more sense when one remembers that the senator from Arizona — from very early on — was one of the most outspoken Republican critics of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. That record of criticism indeed might help McCain in “open” primary contests where Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary, as well as in any general election race.

As for the Democratic nomination contest, most political analysts have been crediting Hillary’s late surge (if you believe the N.H. polls were correct until Sunday, after which there were no more surveys done there) with an outpouring of sympathy from women voters in reaction to Clinton’s now-infamous show of emotion in that Portsmouth, N.H., diner.

But as for the larger primary contest, the success of the surge may very well be helping at least to neutralize the Iraq issue’s potency for Obama, who, although he was an Illinois senator at the time, is able to say that he never would have voted in 2002 to give President Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq, as Clinton did.

Similarly, the Iran NIE might have helped neutralize the Iran issue for Clinton, who also was receiving criticism from Obama for her vote to classify Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Obama and Edwards were both attempting to spin that vote as an authorization for war against Iran, which, from our point of view at least, is a difficult case to make.

As the race continues, stay tuned to this blog for more wild speculation and occasionally sound analysis about the influence of foreign policy on the U.S. presidential contest . . .

The McCain and Lieberman WSJ op-ed was featured in Thursday’s WPR Media Roundup. To sign up to receive our daily Media Roundup email, click here.

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