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Tide Turning In, and On, Iraq

Amidst the heat and light of the presidential campaign over the last week, it was easy to miss a pretty big development in Objective Reality. The long-awaited Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq includes a timetable for withdrawal of American combat forces by 2011, preceded by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi "cities and villages" by June of next year.

Forget, if you can, the Bush administration spin on the agreement they signed. The political figure most threatened by it is John McCain, who has violently and consistently opposed any sort of withdrawal timetable on grounds that it would fatally endanger an impending U.S. military "victory" in Iraq.

Barack Obama's reaction to the new deal in Iraq is obviously a big deal in terms of framing his position vis-a-vis McCain's. Here's part of what he said about it:

I am glad that the Administration has finally shifted to accepting a timetable for the removal of our combat troops from Iraq. Success in Iraq depends on an Iraqi government that is reconciling its differences and taking responsibility for its future, and a timetable is the best way to press the Iraqis to do just that. I welcome the growing convergence around this pragmatic and responsible position....

Senator McCain has stubbornly focused on maintaining an indefinite U.S presence in Iraq, but events have made his bluster and record increasingly out of touch with reality. While Senator McCain continues to offer unconditional military and economic support for Iraq, I strongly believe that we need to use our leverage with the Iraqi government to ensure a political settlement. In addition to a timetable, we should only train Iraqi Security Forces if Iraq's leaders reconcile their differences, and we must insist that Iraq invests its $79 billion surplus on rebuilding its own country. It's time to succeed in Iraq and to honor the sacrifice of our servicemen and women by leaving Iraq to a sovereign Iraqi government.

This is a pitch-perfect reaction, according to the typically acute and highly credible account of Spencer Ackerman:

First, it makes the point that the administration came around to the wisdom of Obama's position after exhausting the alternatives. Second, it portrays Obama's position as the consensus view. Third, it puts McCain on the horns of a dilemma: Either endorse Obama's consensus position -- and thereby flip-flop and concede his opponent's judgment is superior -- or be out of the responsible mainstream. Third-and-a-half, if McCain stays consistent, the Obama line draws a wedge between Bush and McCain.

But there's a fourth reason, and it's the most crucial of all. Did you notice how Obama is talking about "success in Iraq"? He's taking that concept and giving it a common-sense meaning: getting out responsibly -- that is, leveraging withdrawal into a diplomatic strategy with the Iraqi government and the region -- is what success means. That, by the way, isn't just a good campaign strategy. It'll be a good governing strategy, giving the military its due respect from a civilian leader while taking up the arduous and tripwire-laden task of actually withdrawing.

If Obama can indeed define "success in Iraq" as what he, the Iraqi government, and even the Bush administration are talking about, leaving John McCain with the options of either raving on the sidelines about military victory or admitting there's no reason to keep troops in Iraq for four, much less 100 years--then that could help the tide turn decisively in the presidential election.