No active American politicians have passed "the commander-in-chief test." Only one -- George W. Bush -- has even taken the test. And he has failed it. Spectacularly.
Sen. John McCain, in his years of support for the president's swaggering incompetence, shows worrisome signs he's unprepared for the test. So what, in turn, does all this say about the candidate who's prematurely given McCain – and herself – a passing grade?
Sen. Hillary Clinton seems not to understand the irredeemable calamity of the war she blessed with her yes vote on "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002." Neither does McCain. Nor, despite his foresight in opposing the Iraq War from day one, is it clear that Sen. Barack Obama sees this fiasco for what it is: a five-years-and-counting, continuous, ubiquitous infomercial on how – for just pennies on the dollar!!! – insurgents can lock the world's only superpower in a quagmire.
It's an infomercial that makes moot our seemingly biggest question: How do we win in Iraq? The question now is: How do we win anywhere?
Neither McCain's stay-until-we-win strategy nor the Democrats' plans to hurry troops home can make enemy regimes forget the lessons they've learned by watching our troops struggle to make the best of the misguided Iraq mission. Suddenly, the puniest of dictators with the most low-tech of armies can craft credible plans for enduring an American invasion: stash explosives, change your clothes, hide among the civilians, set some roadside bombs, repeat as needed.
This is the Bush legacy. Or it should be.
Nobody in this election is doing more to let Bush off the hook than Sen. Clinton. For short-term political advantage, Sen. Clinton is pretending that walking away from President Bush's mess is so uncomplicated that she can cement a troop-withdrawal plan today that won't need to be modified in the face of whichever military realities greet the next commander-in-chief.
Last month, Sen. Clinton trumpeted the "disturbing questions" raised when an advisor to Sen. Obama made the following common-sense observation: "You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. (Obama) will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan -- an operational plan -- that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president."
When a reporter suggested Sen. Clinton's own exit strategy might not be feasible if Iraq changes drastically in the coming months, she said, "No, I don't think so. I'm committed to beginning a withdrawal within 60 days."
I came into this campaign with sincere respect for Sen. Clinton. The few molecules of that respect that linger make me doubt that a person of Sen. Clinton's obvious intelligence can possibly mean what she's saying. On principle, it galls me when smart people deliberately say dumb things to manipulate the ignorant and the inattentive. But this is about so much more than whether someone's campaign ethics are galling to me.
This, as I've suggested, is about how history will assign blame for Iraq. This is about whether we educate voters about President Bush's legacy. This is about whether Americans will know enough to continue to blame Bush -- and not future presidents -- when our nation continues to be haunted by the Iraq War for years and decades to come.
Blame, in this rare case, can be constructive. Blaming Bush can grant the next president the ample breathing room needed to start rallying back from all that's wrong in Iraq. Whether the voters pick Clinton, Obama, or even McCain to hoist us from this quagmire, there seem certain to be chilling, catastrophic moments ahead. Such moments might signal we're on the wrong path. Or they might mean we need to press on. I pity the commander-in-chief who will need to read these tea leaves.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright supports Sen. Clinton. In her smart, valuable, readable new book, Albright writes she is "not among those who have argued for the early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. I believe President Bush was right to claim that a precipitous pullback could lead to catastrophe, but wrong to assume that the presence of our troops would somehow prevent catastrophe."
Albright's position does not match Sen. Clinton's. That doesn't mean Albright is a hypocrite for supporting Sen. Clinton. Nor does it mean that Sen. Clinton automatically is wrong for putting forward a plan that deviates from Albright's nuanced understanding of Iraq. What it means is that the path forward in Iraq, out of Iraq, and beyond Iraq is dizzyingly complicated.
Albright writes there are "no good options in Iraq." She outlines three potential "nightmares", which might be avoided entirely, might happen individually, or might all come true at once:
* A permanent terrorist haven in the Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.
* A cozy Iraq-Iran alliance that menaces Israel.
* A fractured Iraq that ignites a region-wide war.
The nightmare scenarios don't end there. As I argued above, the nightmare that's already real is the 24/7 insurgency infomercial. The infomercial has not exactly shown that we're beatable. But it's proved you don't need a big army to thwart us. Now everybody knows this. The relentless public revelation of our shortcomings has forced the military to take steps toward reinventing itself.
Withdrawing from Iraq won't spare the military this chore. Following McCain's plan would actually add to the challenge since the military would have to reinvent itself twice: once to win, a second time to have fresh surprises for our enemies in the next war.
This raises a lot of technical issues. So now is the time to make crystal clear that I have no technical expertise. I'm not a military analyst. I'm not an academic. I didn't serve in the armed services. Anyone reading this can safely afford to ignore my concerns.
The mistake would be to ignore the wisdom of someone like Lt. Col. John Nagl. A Rhodes scholar, Nagl wrote a fascinating book on counterinsurgency. Then, he came down from the ivory tower and led troops waging the day-in-day-out counterinsurgency in Iraq. So he's had a chance to learn – under fire – the ways his own book was naïve. His current edition of "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife" incorporates those real-world lessons. Now, he's helping the army to reinvent itself for Iraq.
In a recent joint interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Nagl appeared with Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. Nagl gave the more optimistic of the two assessments, listing the names of various high-profile commanders who give him hope the military is serious about restructuring itself.
"However," Nagl cautioned, "there are entrenched and bureaucratic and organizational disincentives to change, in particular the military-industrial complex. We are spending an awful lot of money on weapons systems that are not designed to help us in the wars we're fighting and what I believe are likely to be the wars we're going to be fighting for the next 20 or 30 years."
In other words, the military is not nimble enough to manage reinvention gracefully. Any unnecessary, understaffed invasion obliges the military to attempt this clumsy process of reinvention, while the men and women who serve in uniform are literally under the gun. This is the legacy of the unnecessary, understaffed invasion and occupation of Iraq. This, again, is the Bush legacy.
To get us on track, Nagl says some key people in America need to pay serious attention: members of Congress, members of the executive branch, and all of us: "(The American people) deserve to have explained to them the choices we're making with their tax dollars. We owe it to them to give them the most security we can possibly provide given the threats we can reasonably foresee …"
To that end, I'm wishing for something virtually impossible during a presidential election campaign. Because of just how much is at stake, I'm wishing for the Iraq War to be depoliticized. That doesn't mean voters should ignore the war or stop assessing who offers the best path out of quagmire. Rather, it means the candidates must avoid oversimplifying the war for short-term political advantage.
Sen. McCain shouldn't imply that anti-invasion equalled pro-Saddam. He should not argue that any candidate calling for withdrawal is guilty of putting personal ambition above national interest. He should not argue, within the space of one speech, that: 1) "I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for President that they cannot keep if elected ..."; and 2) We are "within reach" of transforming Iraq into a "strong, stable, democratic ally against terrorism and a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran."
Sen. Obama should not pretend that Sen. McCain and Sen. Clinton wanted President Bush to wage the war as incompetently and recklessly as he ultimately did. Nor should he say Sen. McCain wants a 100-year war in Iraq.
Sen. Clinton needs to stop manipulating voters with the fiction that Sen. Obama is wishy-washy on withdrawal simply because he'd craft the final specifics of his troop pullout based on the realities that exist in 2009. This is common sense. It's what a President Hillary Clinton would do, too. She knows it.
Stripped of distracting political rhetoric, there's a remarkably clear two-phase decision voters would get to make:
* Phase One: Does it matter whether the president who pulls troops out of Iraq is someone who stood up against the war from the beginning?
* Phase Two: Should America leave Iraq or stay in Iraq?
Wrong answers to these questions would haunt us long after Americans stop dying in Iraq. Our duty as voters is to make these choices with as few phony distractions as possible.
Shut out the noise.