Next week General Petraeus will report on progress of the war. It will likely mark a turning point in America’s role in Iraq, and will refocus voters on what they should be looking for in a president. It also reminds us that the elephant in the room in 2008 is the global war against radical jihadists and their reign of terror.
Iraq may well be coming full circle. Our stunning military victories in 2003 degenerated into an ineffective plan for securing and stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. After serious missteps, consternation from all corners, and a bruising midterm election, President Bush gave the country a new defense secretary, a new commanding general, and a new strategy.
Now all but the most obstinate war critics and partisan snipers are compelled to admit that things in Iraq are getting much better. Just this week Mr. Bush was meeting in a relatively peaceful al-Anbar province — which months ago was written off as a lost cause — with local Iraqi leaders that used to be fighting against us. Such a visit and meeting would have been impossible before the troop surge, and shows better than anything how successful the surge has been.
As this progress continues, the issue will evolve from military victory to political stability. As American troops take out insurgents and more local Iraqi leaders turn on the terrorists, it creates breathing room for political leaders to work out a way to live together. While it’s clear that Iraq won’t be a Madisonian democracy, there has to be something better than bitter distrust and being dominated by their neighbors. And even if the al-Maliki government has been disappointing, local leaders are stepping forward and making a difference.
The fact that we’re now talking about Iraqi politics instead of street violence is more evidence of how much better things are there.
And now presidential candidates will likely be coming full circle as well. First, consider the Democrats.
Hillary Clinton will be faced with a difficult dilemma. She’s an ardent liberal who understands that that classification creates doubt that she can effectively protect the nation against a brutal enemy. She’s also a divisive politician that many Americans simply don’t trust. So on one hand, she needs to recast herself as a tough, hawkish moderate.
But her party base is currently dominated by radical anti-war activists, many of whom not only oppose efforts in Iraq but also Afghanistan and the war against terrorism. If she doesn’t pander to them, they will put their money and votes behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Yet Mrs. Clinton’s poll numbers may allow her to do that. Having reopened a substantial lead over Mr. Obama, she’ll likely track more to the center to woo moderates.
Unfortunately, for Mrs. Clinton, however, Mr. Obama has proven himself to be a formidable candidate who may well close the gap again, having more money than she has, and showing the magnetic personality that she lacks. Now that he’s gotten over his early mistakes he’s in a position to climb again.
Mrs. Clinton will do everything she can to keep Mr. Obama from getting close. Until that happens, look for her to talk like a warrior, distancing herself from her liberal record.
She may even create a Sister Souljah moment like Bill Clinton in 1992, turning on one or two radical groups that she’s currently allied with — like DailyKos — to align herself with Middle America.
Now, look at the Republicans.
There can be no doubt that the chief beneficiaries of progress in Iraq are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. This is Mr. McCain’s top issue as a war hero, and for Mr. Guiliani it gets back to his proven ability to stand strong and be calm in the midst of tragedy and crisis.
This also creates a challenge for the governors in the race, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. They will have to make the case that they’re ready to handle these overseas challenges.
The Petraeus report is certainly something Mr. Huckabee needs to consider closely. With his very strong showing in the Iowa Straw Poll, he’s now accepted as a viable candidate. Money is pouring in, fundraisers are being held, and he’s pushing forward in additional states. It’s his chance to play in the major leagues.
Mr. Huckabee should invest some of these newfound resources into expanding his foreign policy team, and add national security and foreign relations material to his stump speech. He’s gotten people’s attention with health care, education, and family. Now he needs to do it with Iran and North Korea.
America is looking for a commander in chief who can fight and win the war on terror. This is a conflict against radical Islamic militants, waging a global jihad against Western civilization. Every candidate needs to explain what they would do, and every voter must demand a president who can keep us safe.