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The Facts in Iraq Are Changing

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Saturday, June 21, 2008

As we enter the second half of the campaign year, facts are undermining the Democratic narrative that has dominated our politics since about the time Hurricane Katrina rolled into the Gulf coast -- most importantly, the facts about Iraq.

During the Democratic primary season, all the party's candidates veered hardly a jot or tittle from the narrative that helped the Democrats sweep the November 2006 elections. Iraq is spiraling into civil war, we invaded unwisely and have botched things ever since, no good outcome is possible, and it is time to get out of there as fast as we can.

In January 2007, when George W. Bush ordered the surge strategy, which John McCain had advocated since the summer of 2003, Barack Obama informed us that the surge couldn't work. The only thing to do was to get out as soon as possible.

That stance proved to be a good move toward winning the presidential nomination -- but it was poor prophecy. It is beyond doubt now that the surge has been hugely successful, beyond even the hopes of its strongest advocates, like Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. Violence is down enormously, Anbar and Basra and Sadr City have been pacified, Prime Minister Maliki has led successful attempts to pacify Shiites as well as Sunnis, and the Iraqi parliament has passed almost all of the "benchmark" legislation demanded by the Democratic Congress -- all of which Barack Obama seems to have barely noticed or noticed not at all. He has not visited Iraq since January 2006 and did not seek a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus when he was in Washington.

I can remember how opponents of the Vietnam War simply tuned out news of American success when at Richard Nixon's orders Gen. Creighton Abrams pursued a new strategy. Opponents of the Iraq war, including Obama, seem to have been doing the same.

That's not true of all critics of the Bush administration and its military leaders. The editorial writers of The Washington Post have been paying close and careful attention. And even though they may be temperamentally more inclined to favor Obama's candidacy over John McCain's, they have not been unwilling to take Obama to task for his inattention to American success. Obama, the Post noted tartly on June 7, "has become unreasonably wedded to a year-old proposal to rapidly withdraw all U.S. combat forces from the country -- a plan offered when he wrongly believed that the situation would only worsen as long as American troops remained."

On June 18, a Post editorial made the same point again and noted that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyard Zebari told Obama in a phone conversation that a precipitate withdrawal would embolden al-Qaida and Iran. But Obama told ABC News' Jake Tapper he said no such thing. Perhaps he's still trying to avoid facing facts that undermine his narrative. Which might also explain why he said he was willing to meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions while he has not been able to find time to meet with Petraeus.

Other examples of facts undermining Democratic narratives readily occur. Last week charges were dropped against the seventh of eight Marines accused of atrocities in Haditha. The narrative, peddled by Democratic Congressman (and Marine veteran) John Murtha, of depraved American soldiers massacring innocent Iraqis seems to be falling victim to the facts.

And the fact of $4 gasoline has undermined the narrative that alternative forms of energy can painlessly supply our needs. Public opinion has switched sharply and now favors drilling offshore and, by inference, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats are scrambling to argue that drilling wouldn't make any difference -- and that anyway the oil companies aren't drilling enough on federal land they currently lease.

All of this matters because the rejection of the Republicans in the 2006 elections was a verdict on competence more than ideology. The Republicans seemed incompetent at relieving victims of Katrina, producing success in Iraq and even policing the House page programs. The Democrats could not do worse and might do better. But in the 19 months since November 2006, some important facts have changed.

If George W. Bush was wrong about the surge from summer 2003 to January 2007, Barack Obama has been wrong about it from January 2007 to today. John McCain seems to have been right on it all along. When asked why he changed his position on an issue, John Maynard Keynes said: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" What say you, Sen. Obama?

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