It's been a good week for Sen. Barack Obama. National security is the one area where his opponent, Sen. John McCain, holds an advantage in the polls. Yet on the two most contentious security issues—Iran and Iraq—Obama's views have now been endorsed by two of the most unassailably authoritative figures: the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces and the prime minister of Iraq.
When it comes to military matters, McCain the war hero might get away with pulling rank on the junior senator from Illinois—but he can't claim more experience than those two.
The stab from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki turned into a comedy routine. Maliki stated this week that he would not sign any treaty allowing U.S. armed forces to remain on his nation's soil—the current accord, known as a Status of Forces Agreement, expires at the end of this month—unless it includes a timetable for their withdrawal.
Obama has called for just such a timetable. McCain has opposed one, famously saying that a substantial number of U.S. combat troops might need to stay in Iraq for another 100 years.
When asked about Maliki's statement, McCain told reporters that it had been mistranslated—to which Maliki responded that, no, the English version was correct. At that point, some of McCain's supporters said that the prime minister wasn't serious, that he'd been forced by political constituencies to demand a timetable. Maliki again insisted that he meant what he'd said. (Even if he was caving to political pressures, one could infer that this suggests a majority of Iraqis and their major parties want us to commit to getting out in the not-too-distant future.)
It's a rather awkward situation for McCain, who did publicly say four years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations that if an elected government of Iraq asked us to leave, "I think it's obvious that we would have to leave," adding, "I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people."
Meanwhile, Maliki's insistence on this score makes life a lot easier for Obama. McCain pressured him into planning a trip to Iraq this summer—he hadn't been there for two years—so he can see the place up close before making judgments about its future. While he's there, Obama will be briefed by Gen. David Petraeus and other commanders; he'll probably also talk with junior officers and enlisted men, and with Iraqi politicians, too. Security in Iraq is better than it was a year ago. To some degree, this improvement is the result of George W. Bush's surge (combined with Petraeus' strategy, Muqtada Sadr's cease-fire, the paying of many insurgents to stop shooting at us, and, most important, the alliance between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents against the common enemy of al-Qaida—an alliance initiated by the Sunnis before the surge began). It might have been awkward for Obama to praise the troops' accomplishments then rapidly pull them out. But he could say, "If our friend the Iraqi prime minister wants us to set a schedule for withdrawing, well, how could any president of the United States insist otherwise?"
Obama also got a boost this week from reports in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told top officials of the Israeli Defense Forces that the United States would not give them a "green light" to launch airstrikes on Iran.
This is not merely a political statement. To send fighter-bombers to attack Iran, the Israelis would need permission to fly over Iraq on the way. Maliki certainly wouldn't approve such a plan; Mullen was saying that President Bush wouldn't, either.
Obama has said that the situation in Iran—the continued enrichment of uranium, the recent test-firing of missiles, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's persistently belligerent rhetoric—calls for a full-court diplomatic press. This means economic pressure but also direct talks. Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said much the same thing in public, noting that an attack would merely delay, not halt, Iran's nuclear program and that Iranian retaliation to an airstrike could do far greater damage—especially economic—to the United States and its allies.
McCain hasn't called for military action (except for the standard boilerplate of keeping "all options on the table"), but he refuses to consider direct talks—thus leaving us in the same hole we're in now.
Once more: advantage Obama.
At this point, McCain's challenge is to justify the perception that national security is his strength—to explain how his experience in the military translates into good judgment for making policy.