Obama -- the most reflective of candidates -- displays little self-knowledge when it comes to these political challenges. When questioned recently about his choice for vice president, he responded, "I would like somebody who knows about a bunch of stuff that I am not as expert on. I think a lot of people assume that might be some sort of military thing to make me look more commander in chief-like. ... Ironically, this is an area -- foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain."
The question here is not self-confidence but public confidence. And Obama's political judgment is exactly wrong. He will have enormous advantages on domestic policy in the coming campaign, on which he seems both more activist and interested than McCain. But McCain leads on measures such as "strong leader." Obama needs to seem, and be, more commander in chief-like.
McCain has challenges of his own. The fortunes of his campaign remain tied to events in Iraq, as they have been from the beginning. And despite undeniable progress against Sunni radicalism, events in Iraq are still inseparable from the actions and attitudes of Shiite militias armed and directed by Iran -- an influence that went unconfronted by America for many years. Maliki's uncoordinated attack on the Shiite militias in Basra seems to indicate that while the Iraqi spirit is willing, the flesh remains weak. But the failure of the Shiite uprising to spread more broadly shows that the extremists may be weaker than in the past. And, as Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute points out, Moqtada al-Sadr was forced to cave in at the end. "By going after al-Sadr," he says, "Maliki forced the Iraqi political parties to take sides, and every single one sided with him (Maliki)."
The situation in Iraq, as Gen. Petraeus insists, is "fragile and reversible." But the debate has moved far beyond a candidate's initial support for the war. This has led to an odd inversion of the generational battle. Young Obama's strongest arguments are focused on the failures of the past. The older man, by insisting on victory, is more responsible and realistic about the future.