The Surge: Who Was Right? Lieberman and Bayh Square Off

Still in Chicago. Will board the bus to the airport in an hour. We depart at 8 p.m. CDT. Once I take off, I won't be able to approve "comments." Don't be angry. I have to personally approve each comment. I'll be flying for more than 14 hours, so it will take some time.

Barack Obama will soon arrive in Iraq. What awaits him, it seems, is at least as important as what he or John McCain or Nouri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, want to do in the future.

As I predicted in this space late Friday, Obama surrogates now assert that the difference between "timetables" and "time horizons" for troop withdrawals as so trivial that Obama was right about moving troops out -- regardless of his opposition to the surge and his push for troop withdrawals last year. The Obama camp also appears to be adopting an attitude of Original Sin about the Iraq War. The U.S.-launched war in the land of the two rivers was the strategic original sin of the post-9/11 era and nothing arising from it can redeem that original fall from grace.

You can see this line of argumentation in today's lively exchange on Fox News Sunday between Obama surrogate Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana who chaired Hillary Clinton's campaign in that hard-fought primary, and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats but backs McCain to the hilt.

The McCain camp demands that Obama answer, while in Iraq, for his opposition to the troop surge. Lieberman said it would be virtually impossible for Obama to travel to Iraq and find the security that awaits him without the surge. Lieberman went so far as to say Obama was "prepared to lose in Iraq." If Obama had prevailed and the surge been stopped, Lieberman said, Iraq could very easily be failed state with a vibrant Al Qaeda presence, massive sectarian unrest and untold humanitarian suffering due to violence, refugee outflows and diminished economic activity.

Bayh countered that the surge is less important that the war itself and the question now is who was right sooner about troop withdrawals. The two dots Obama wants voters to connect are: War and Withdrawal. The FIVE dots McCain wants them to connect are: War, Failure, Surge, Success, Withdrawal.

That, in essence, is the Iraq debate. Voter who care about the surge and consider it the central test of a commander-in-chief will side overwhelmingly with McCain. Those who see the war decision itself as the prism through which to evaluate a commander-in-chief will side with Obama, as they have lopsidedly since the campaign began. Those in between will have to decide for themselves if the war was worth fighting in the first place. For those who believe it wasn't, I'm not sure the surge will prove decisive for them in McCain's favor. For those who do believe some good can come out of the Iraq war, the surge and McCain's advocacy of it, could prove pivotal.

Hence the intensity of today's surge exchange. Here is the transcript. Happy reading.

WALLACE: As we discussed with Admiral Mullen, Iraqi prime minister Maliki seemed over the weekend to endorse Obama's plan for pulling combat troops out of Iraq by mid 2010, within two years. Now he's apparently backed off that.
But, Senator Lieberman, the Iraqis clearly want us out sooner rather than later, and they would like on a timetable. Why is Senator McCain resisting that?

LIEBERMAN: Well, we -- Senator McCain and I and others -- want us out of Iraq sooner rather than later, but we want us out in a way that does not compromise all the gains that American and Iraqi forces have made in Iraq, which Admiral Mullen spoke to.
And frankly, we want to stay there to a victory because we don't want all those who have served in the American uniform there to have served or in some cases died in vain.
Remember this, Chris. We wouldn't be having this discussion about how to get out unless the surge, which John McCain courageously fought for, taking on the president of his own party, popular opinion, risking his campaign, and which Senator Obama opposed, worked.
So I think that's the good news. I think everybody -- that is, Prime Minister Maliki, President Bush, people like John McCain and I -- agree the sooner we're out, the better. But it has to be based on conditions on the ground.
Senator Obama doesn't seem to feel that way. It looked like he did a little bit after the primaries were over. But then he, pushed by and others on the antiwar left of the Democratic Party, is back to a rigid time line. And that's not wise.

WALLACE: Let me talk to Senator Bayh about that.
Admiral Mullen didn't mention Obama, but he did say this idea of a timetable for getting out in two years is dangerous. Why not agree that you're going to make any decisions based on conditions on the ground, Senator?

BAYH: Chris, I think it's important to note that Barack Obama's judgment about these issues has been excellent from the beginning, the kind of judgment you'd want in a commander in chief, and others are now beginning to adopt his positions.
We wouldn't be discussing surges in Iraq or anything else if Barack had had his way. We wouldn't have started that war to begin with.
He was right about Afghanistan. That's the place from which we were attacked. He's been calling for more troops there now for over a year. And John McCain, to his credit, has now come around and adopted Barack's point of view on that.
He has been for, as you say, a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As we heard, Prime Minister Maliki has embraced a more definitive time line, whether it's the 16 months or something else. But clearly, they want a more definitive time line.
And even President Bush now is coming up with a variety of euphemisms -- aspirational goals, time horizons. I mean, it's starting to sound pretty much like a time line to me.
So it's common sense, Chris. Any important enterprise, certainly something as important as a war -- you want to have a plan. And a plan has to have some idea of what it's going to cost, what the adverse consequences are going to be and how long it's going to take.
So 16 months seems to be a reasonable goal. Let's work toward that. Let's bring this to a conclusion in a responsible way and focus on Iraq (sic) where the focus should have been all along.

WALLACE: But, Senator Bayh, even the Washington Post criticized Obama this week for -- and let's put it up on the screen -- his iron timetable, accusing him of foolish consistency and that he's ultimately indifferent to the war's outcome.
And here's an exchange between Obama and McCain this week.

OBAMA: We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010.

MCCAIN: I'm really astonished that he should give a policy speech on Iraq and Afghanistan before he goes to find out the facts.

WALLACE: Again, two questions, really, Senator Bayh. Why the, quote, "iron timetable" that the Washington Post talks about? And secondly, this issue -- why announce your policy before you go to Iraq and talk to the generals and the Iraqis?

BAYH: A couple of things, Chris. First, General Petraeus was asked recently about whether a 16-month period was a reasonable period of time, and he said it would depend on a variety of factors. He didn't say it was unreasonable.
We've been there -- will have been -- 16 months from when the next president is inaugurated, almost seven years. We've spent $700 billion. Just think of all the other things we could have done -- finished Afghanistan, energy security for our country -- with those amount of resources.
What's really surprising is that John, a man I admire and respect, says that even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruct in Iraq, knowing all the consequences that have been adverse in Afghanistan because of our fixation on Iraq, he would do this all over again. That's what is really surprising.
So Barack thinks that 16 months from January is a reasonable period of time. Let's go for it. Let's see. Let's try and bring this to a conclusion on that time frame. If there are difficulties, we'll address them when they arise.

LIEBERMAN: Look, the fact is that if Barack Obama's policy on Iraq had been implemented, Barack Obama couldn't go to Iraq today. It wouldn't be safe. Barack Obama and John McCain saw the same difficulty in Iraq.
John McCain had the guts to argue against public opinion, to put his whole campaign on the line, because, as he says, he'd rather lose an election than lose in a war that he thinks is this important to the United States.
The reason I say Barack -- if Barack Obama's policy couldn't -- had been implemented -- if Barack Obama's policy in Iraq had been implemented, he couldn't be in Iraq today is because he was prepared to accept retreat and defeat.
And that would mean today Al Qaida would be in charge of parts of Iraq. Iranian-backed extremists would be in charge of other parts of Iraq. There'd be civil war and maybe even genocide.
And the fact is that we are winning in Iraq today. And you know, you can't choose, as Senator Obama seems to think, to lose in Iraq so you can win in Afghanistan.
The reality is if we lost in Iraq, which Obama was prepared to do, we would go to Afghanistan as losers. Instead, Al Qaida has its tail tucked between its legs as it's exiting Iraq to go -- to try to...

WALLACE: I'm going to...

BAYH: I have to respond to that. Barack Obama was not for losing in Iraq. Barack didn't want the war to begin with.
John McCain opposed surging troops in Afghanistan until last week.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, but what...

BAYH: Excuse me. Was John for losing in Afghanistan? I don't think so.

LIEBERMAN: Of course not.

BAYH: And now you have Maliki, even President Bush, are moving toward Barack Obama's position on this.

WALLACE: I want to...

BAYH: His judgment was right.

WALLACE: Gentlemen, I want to -- we could continue this...

LIEBERMAN: Those questions -- bottom line, no question that Barack Obama was prepared to lose in Iraq.

BAYH: That's not true.

WALLACE: All right. All right.

LIEBERMAN: Forget what's right or wrong...
That's where the exchange ended, in a bit of a stalemate. This debate will surround all of the evaluations of Obama's visit to Iraq: his, McCain's and the country's.