Here’s a question that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has faced dozens of times, both directly, in his recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, for example, and indirectly, in Republican speeches and from conservative talk show hosts: Why can’t you just admit you were wrong and say the surge in Iraq worked?
There’s a good chance the question will be asked during the four upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates.
The question contains an assumption and a subtext. The assumption is that the situation in Iraq has played out long enough for us to be certain of its outcome, even though Gen. David Petraeus acknowledges that conditions there are fragile and subject to reversal. The subtext is that our "victory" in Iraq is obvious to everyone else, but Obama is simply too petty to admit he made a mistake.
What is going on in Iraq? Mostly, the news has moved off the front pages, superseded by the economy and Sarah Palin. Clearly, the violence has dropped from previous levels and the presence of additional Americans troops has had an impact, along with other complex factors.
Still, if you turn to the middle pages of the newspaper, you find disquieting signs: On Saturday, Sept. 13, a car bomb exploded near a medical clinic in Dujail, a mainly Shiite town north of Baghdad. It killed 32 people and wounded 43.
On Sunday, Sept. 14, gunmen killed four employees of an Iraqi television station and a bomb killed four security guards. A roadside bombing killed eight Kurdish soldiers. Elsewhere, two Sunnis were killed, for a total of 18 that day, with many wounded.
Monday, Sept. 15, was a quiet day: Five Iraqi policemen were killed by bombs, and the leader of a Sunni group cooperating with the United States was killed when his booby-trapped car exploded.
On Tuesday, Sept. 16, a female suicide bomber blew herself up among a gathering of police officers. Twenty-two were killed and 33 were wounded. Elsewhere in Baghdad, a double car bombing in a commercial district killed 13.
On Wednesday, Sept. 17, no deaths were reported. But on Thursday, seven American soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash. And so on.
But these events in Iraq are properly understood only in the context of other news from this same period. On Sept. 13, the same day 32 people died in Iraq, Muslim extremists exploded bombs in a shopping center in New Delhi, killing 18 Indians.
Afghanistan, the legitimate object of military action after 9/11 but forgotten amid the distraction in Iraq, is close to spinning out of control. On Sept. 11, two American soldiers were killed there, bringing the total so far this year to 113, compared to 111 during all of last year. Suicide bombings, a tactic imported from Iraq, proliferate.
And on Sept. 17, the newspaper reported that Pakistan has ordered its military to fire on United States troops if they’re discovered making incursions into Pakistan in search of jihadists. On the same day, al Qaeda attacked the American embassy in Yemen, killing 17.
So there’s plenty of bad news from Iraq and elsewhere, but perhaps even more disturbing is what’s not in the newspaper: There are few reports of progress toward political reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or of clear and irreversible movement toward the establishment of a friendly, stable source of petroleum for American cars, which was the original, unspoken intent of the incursion.
So, in this context, how well is the surge working?
Barack Obama faces an awkward choice: On one hand, an admission that he was wrong about the surge would produce the sound bite that, replayed endlessly, would turn the election against him. Political suicide.
On the other hand, Obama’s reluctance to give a black-and-white answer to a very gray question makes it easy for his opponents to picture him as too stubborn to admit to what many Americans desperately hope is true, that the corner has been turned in Iraq and that all the lives and money sacrificed were not in vain. Unfortunately for Obama, the patience for understanding Iraq in all of its complexity is in short supply among American voters.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu. For more news and information, visit www.scrippsnews.com.)