I hate to say it, but both John McCain and Barack Obama are wrong in their approaches to Iraq. On Aug. 18, McCain said, "The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawals and arbitrary timelines." A day later, Obama mused, "Iraqi inaction threatens the progress we've made and creates an opening for Iran and the `special groups' it supports."
Before I explain, it's worth noting that the era in which the United States has the dubious luxury of focusing on one kind of war at a time, plus Afghanistan, plus too much face time in that so-called "peace process," is over.
It almost seems like bad form to critique the Iraq policies of the men who would be president. Iraq has taken a back seat to Georgia in driving the news cycle, while the candidates are having enough trouble this month picking veeps and keeping up with events coming out of Russia.
But Iraq is probably the direct catalyst of the transformation in stature and capacity of the United States on the world stage, even if the recent crisis in Georgia is what revealed it.
That transformation has manifested itself in what is a new experience for the United States: We are being ignored. Of course, we are used to being reviled, even as we are also used to seeking approval. We are used to being accommodated, taken advantage of, and even, on historic occasions, feared. We are not used to being ignored, and especially not by Russia.
So, what's going on? Here's the short answer via another question: Would Russia be ignoring the United States if practically every U.S. man under arms (even every woman) weren't irretrievably tied up on the quixotic mission of transforming Iraq into a Western-style democracy?
I don't think so. We can't follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice to speak softly and carry a big stick if our stick is stuck in sand. I'm not sure if we've become a superpower with the power shut off, exactly, but I do know that Russia is always happy to advance under cover of darkness.
But back to Iraq. McCain, of course, is wrong for believing Iraq is a "democratic ally," peaceful or otherwise. Obama is wrong for believing Iraq is able or even cares to block the "opening" for Iran and the "special groups" or militias, it supports. And the disastrous implication behind both assessments is that there is something worthwhile the United States can reasonably expect to extract from its costly Iraqi investment -- namely, a democratic ally and bulwark against Iran.