Posted on February 19, 2008 in Washington Watch

Despite polls showing that the economy has eclipsed the Iraq war as the number one issue for U.S. voters, the war itself, and as Barack Obama rightly terms it, “the mindset that got us into this war,” will remain critical issues in the 2008 Presidential contest. Here’s why:

While Iraq has largely fallen off the front pages of U.S. newspapers, the country remains a tinderbox, ready to ignite. The reduction in violence is due not so much to the U.S. military surge as it the result of a change in tactics by competing Iraqi groups. Any one of a number of factors, both internal and external to Iraq (for example: a change in Iran’s regional approach; a renewed Kurdish push toward independence; heightened tensions between competing Shi’a groups in the south; or tensions between newly armed Sunni groups and Shi’a led security forces) could inflame the situation, leading quickly to renewed conflict. The many gaps that plague Iraqi society continue to grow despite the current reduction in violence.

Given this, neither President Bush nor his supporter and erstwhile successor, John McCain, can claim bragging rights for success. The bottom line is that come November, and most probably before November, Iraq will once again be an open conflict in search of a comprehensive resolution.

In the face of all of this, it can be expected that the presumptive Republican nominee, McCain, and his allies will continue to assert the need for military victory, eschewing the type of diplomacy-led approach that was called for by the Iraq Study Group, terming this “dangerous appeasement” and “surrender in the face of terror.”

The question will be, how will McCain’s Democratic challenger respond and, therefore, what will be the nature of the ensuing debate?

Given the likelihood that Iraq will once again emerge as a conflict area, and that tensions with Iran will remain or even grow, Democrats will need to take a different tack than they did five years ago when this mess began.

Because I was part of the pre-war debate, I remember too well how, when the White House pushed the buttons of fear, terrorism and national security, the Democratic leadership buckled. Not wanting to appear “weak on national security,” they gave the President the resolution and support he needed to take the U.S. into this war. It was a mistake then, and it remains a mistake.

In 2003, I pressed the Democratic Party to pass a resolution opposing the war, asserting that the White House had not provided clear answers as to the reasons for the war, or made clear the costs, consequences and terms of commitment of the war. I argued that a war of choice in Iraq – without the support of the international community and with the war in Afghanistan far from resolved – was a blunder of huge proportions.

My effort failed, because several party leaders did not want to be seen as “weak on national security.” Some used the tired and banal mantra “we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the President in defense of our country;” and others wrongly claimed that “if we give the President this, we’ll take it off the table, and be able to focus instead on the domestic issues Americans most care about.” These arguments were wrong then, and are wrong now. I responded, in the end, that this debate was not about being “weak on national security,” it was about being “smart on national security.”

Make no mistake about it, come November, in large measure due to the failures of President Bush’s foreign policy across the Middle East, America and the world will continue to face enormous challenges: a volatile Iraq, an emboldened Iran, extremism and terrorism. In response to all of this John McCain has made his position clear. How will Democrats respond?

I believe that Democrats need to be as clear as John McCain, proposing a distinct and smart alternative to his call for more wars “lasting into the next century.”

It is for this reason that I have found Barack Obama’s approach more compelling and convincing. He opposed this war from the beginning, when it was unpopular to do so, and he has endorsed a plan to end the war that embodies most of the principles recommended by the Iraq Study Group, embracing the need for aggressive diplomacy to resolve the broader region’s long-standing problems.

Because Iraq and the danger of Middle East conflict will remain an issue, it is a change in approach and a change mindset that are important. There are many good reasons to support Barack Obama’s candidacy. This is one of the best.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

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