I know this is not a big news story in America anymore, but the question is still worth asking:
How goes President Bush's Iraq democratization crusade these days - the same crusade that would be waged next year by John McCain?
Well, last I checked, America's fighting men and women were putting their lives on the line for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and for the Badr Organization militia. That's been the situation during the past week, which makes you wonder why Bush bothers to insult the U.S. citizenry with his talk about how we are helping a "young democracy." This is not Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dramatized on HBO, debating constitutionalism and trading rhetorical ripostes. This is about a violent power play in the streets, with American troops caught in the middle.
Our client in Iraq, the prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki - whose chief ally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, runs the Islamic Supreme Council (a political party) as well as his own militia (the aforementioned Badr Organization) - last week put his fragile political capital at risk by seeking to crack down on his Shiite rival in Basra, the militia-backed cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Local elections are scheduled for Oct. 1 in Basra, where Sadr is popular. So, the way things work in this "young democracy," Maliki made the decision to engage Sadr's Mahdi Army in street battles - with military victory as his goal, thereby presumably ensuring political victory at the polls for Maliki's allies in the Islamic Supreme Council and in his own Dawa party.
True to their shared instincts, both Bush and McCain lauded Maliki at the outset of fighting, and raised the stakes accordingly. Bush declared last Thursday that Maliki's decision to battle Sadr in the streets was "a very positive development," indeed "a defining moment" in the brief history "of a free Iraq." McCain a day later characterized Maliki's move as "a sign of the strength of his government." (If you're trying to differentiate between these two cheerleaders, here's a handy tip: Bush is the one who was roundly booed Sunday night at Washington's baseball opener.)
Not suprisingly, over the past few days we have heard nothing further from Bush and McCain about "defining moments" and government "strength" - because, as it turns out, Maliki's Iraqi security forces (the forces that we have long been training to stand up, so that we can stand down) failed in their mission to tame Sadr's fighters. Maliki had vowed to win a clear victory; instead, Sadr's militia ceded almost no ground, and fought the government forces to a standstill.
The result - for now, anyway - is a negotiated ceasefire between the rival Shiite groups that was brokered by the Shiite leaders of Iran. Sadr's militia remains virtually intact; Maliki, so recently lauded by McCain for his "strength," basically sued for peace. As a result, he lost face and political capital.
McCain's reaction? Today on CNN, he tried to characterize the ceasefire as "very helpful." Then, finally, he admitted that Maliki's military campaign, conducted by his U.S.-trained forces, "was not the success, apparently so far, that we hoped it would be."
All of which prompts these questions: Amidst all the attention being paid to the steel-cage match between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will John McCain be closely questioned about his fealty to the ongoing Iraq fiasco - and to the Bushspeak that, for five years, has repeatedly been contradicted by the realities on the ground? Or are the Iraq realities - all those Shiite factions warring with each other, plus the discontented Sunnis - simply too complicated for most Americans?
Here are two possible scenarios for next November:
(1) Voters simply tune out the war. They have no patience to differentiate between Shiite factions or keep the names straight (see fourth paragraph). Being Americans, they prefer a clean fight with designated good guys and bad guys; denied that in Iraq, they wash their hands of the whole mess and go to the mall. They look at the candidates, and figure that maybe the one with the most military and foreign policy experience is best qualified to clean things up, whatever that means. Advantage, McCain.
(2) Voters lead busy lives and don't have the time to figure out all the factions in Iraq. So they skip to the bottom line and instinctively recognize that the constant ebb and flow of sectarian fighting, and the shellings of the supposedly safe Green Zone, are all signs of the ongoing chaos that undercuts Bush's incessant booster rhetoric - and here is McCain saying the same stuff. Advantage, Democrats.
Candidate McCain is currently embarked on a biographical tour, backed by a 60-second TV ad that culminates with the newly-freed POW reciting his Navy serial number from a hospital bed. It's powerful material that plucks traditional American chords. Assuming (just for the heck of it) that the Democrats manage not to implode this summer, the autumn race is likely to be close. And the outcome may well hinge on whether McCain's heroic profile is deemed more important by swing voters than the fact that he is Bush's echo on Iraq, still gargling the neocon Kool-Aid.