Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The dramatic success of the surge in Iraq is not a central issue in the current presidential race. It did, however, set its shape -- and may help determine its outcome in an unexpected way.

John McCain won the nomination of his party, in large part, as a vindicated prophet. After visiting Iraq in the summer of 2003, he argued on "Meet the Press" that "the men and women in the military are doing a superb job. ... The problem is that they don't have enough resources. There's not enough of them, and we are in a very serious situation, in my view, a race against time." McCain added, "Time is not on our side. People in 125-degree heat with no electricity and no fuel are going to become angry in a big hurry. The sophistication of the attacks on U.S. and allied troops have increased. And what we do in the next several months will determine whether we're in a very difficult situation or not."

McCain staked his presidential prospects on a major change in Iraq policy: more troops implementing the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy (an approach eventually, though too slowly, adopted by the Bush administration). In his biting new Commentary essay, "Liberals and the Surge," Peter Wehner recounts the elite reaction to this shift. It was variously dismissed as "genuinely bizarre," a "fantasy-based escalation," a "pipe dream," and "completely detached from reality" because "the United States has already lost."

But after early challenges, the positive results have become undeniable, as violence in Iraq has plummeted, normality has returned to markets, and neighbors and political accommodations have moved forward. McCain, it turns out, was tragically and gloriously right -- as right as Winston Churchill during his wilderness years. And McCain's come-from-behind nomination victory would have been inconceivable without this prophetic achievement.

This raises the question: If McCain benefited politically from being correct about the surge, why has Barack Obama not been punished for opposing it?

It was, after all, the single most important decision Obama has made as a public official. His judgment? "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse." This initial reluctance is perhaps understandable; many shared it. But Obama persisted in his skepticism after the results became evident. Even in July of this year, he argued, "the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true."

Sometimes pessimism can also be fantasy-based. Sometimes dreams of defeat can also be pipe dreams.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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