John McCain needs to go on the offensive against Barack Obama over the Iraq war.
Polls tell us that his support for the Iraq invasion is one of voters' chief problems with McCain. Obama's chief credential, on the other hand, is his early, consistent opposition to the war.
Even with recent successes in Iraq, the war remains a heavy negative for McCain. But he can turn that around; here's how.
When it comes to Iraq, Obama is most comfortable living in the past. He wants to endlessly replay the day when he castigated the war as unnecessary and cooked up by White House political types and ideologues. He's far less comfortable talking about Iraq now, and downright antsy when it comes to discussing the future.
It's a lot easier to oppose a policy than to figure out how to replace it.
Countless Americans remain deeply pessimistic about Iraq; recent successes get judged in the light of past, false optimism.
But that also means voters have no problem envisioning disaster should we pull out our troops too soon - the possible slaughter of pro-American Iraqis, plus police and government officials; perhaps a takeover by Iran; a comeback by al Qaeda and other terrorist operatives.
The key is to force Obama to face these dangers - and explain what he'd do.
* He could deny the possibilities - and come off as a naive, wishful thinker; most unsuitable in a president.
* He could waffle - but then McCain would press. If Obama kept it up, voters would see indecision or evasion - evidence he's in over his his head on foreign policy and national security.
* He could say that he'd use diplomacy to handle the situation - but Americans are rightfully skeptical about the chances for a diplomatic resolution, especially if the United States pulls out its troops.
As Frederick the Great said, "diplomacy without force is like music without instruments." McCain could always press and ask, "What do you do if diplomacy fails?"
* Which brings us to the inevitable answer he must give: I will go back into Iraq with troops.
But that begs more questions: Would he keep adequate force in the region? If not, it could take six months of convoys to go back in. And isn't it inevitable that a new invasion would lead to many more casualties than just staying there?
This gambit narrows the real differences between McCain's and Obama's Iraq policies. Obama basically has to say that he'd keep our troops in the region. Voters can be excused for not seeing much difference between keeping them in Iraq and in Kuwait - especially when pulling them even back to Kuwait makes their return to Iraq seem almost inevitable.
You can't run for president looking in the rear-view mirror and reciting what you said six years ago. You have to offer a plan.
McCain has an easily understood position: Stay in and win. As Iraq improves and Obama is forced to admit the possibility - in Americans' view, almost the inevitability - of ongoing involvement, McCain's solution will appear as much the better one.
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