Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Five Years On, Iraq Slips Off the Radar

Posted in Barack Obama by allisonkilkenny on March 19, 2008

From the Washington Post‘s Peter Baker

Five Years On, Iraq Slips Off the Radar

By Peter Baker
As a candidate for president in 1952, in the midst of a prolonged and unresolved foreign war, Dwight D. Eisenhower promised, “I will go to Korea.” That helped propel him to the White House.

As a candidate for president in 2008, in the midst of a prolonged and unresolved foreign war, John McCain actually went to Iraq. But no one even noticed.

This was supposed to be the week of Iraq, the week that the fifth anniversary of the invasion focused the nation’s attention back on its turbulent project in the Middle East. McCain in a flak vest went to see the troops while his two Democratic rivals, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, denounced the war back home. Antiwar activists made plans to throng the streets of Washington to protest the institutions they blame for the Iraq war (including The Washington Post).

And yet the war debate that gripped the capital last year has slipped off the front burner. The collapse of the housing market, the bailout of Bear Sterns, the gun case before the Supreme Court, even Obama’s racially provocative minister have all overshadowed what once seemed like the issue of our times. Take a look at today’s front pages — The Post, New York Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, Detroit News, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Charlotte Observer, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cleveland Plain Dealer all featured the economic problems but no Iraq story. A quick review of today’s major papers found front-page Iraq stories only in the Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune and USA Today.

The falling profile for the war in today’s political and media dialogue has tracked the decreasing violence in Iraq, even with notable exceptions such as yesterday’s suicide bombing that killed 40 in Karbala. The approach (or many say, arrival) of recession has forced the political world to confront the economy instead. Polls show that Iraq not only is not the top issue for voters any more but no longer even the second-biggest issue.

That does not mean the public has grown any fonder of the war. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 34 percent of Americans think the war was worth fighting, exactly the same proportion that felt that way in February 2007 shortly after President Bush ordered 30,000 more troops to Iraq. But there is a sense among Americans that things are finally getting better on the ground. Forty-three percent now believe significant progress is being made in Iraq, up from 31 percent in December 2006.

That is both good news and bad news for McCain, of course. The senator from Arizona and presumptive Republican nominee commands a stronger position now that the situation seems to be getting better, given his strong support for the war and Bush’s “surge” of troops last year. And yet, it also means that the conversation is turning away from national security, where he is viewed as most qualified, and toward the economy and other issues, where by his own admission he is not as seasoned.

Similarly, the new dynamic is good and bad for Clinton and Obama. The senators from New York and Illinois both predicated their campaigns a year ago on tapping the enormous intensity of antiwar fervor in the Democratic base and the broad discontent among moderates and independents with a conflict that could be blamed on a Republican nominee running on Bush’s legacy. Now they are focusing on subprime mortgages and race and retooling their campaigns for a different environment.

While McCain’s trip to Iraq went largely unnoticed, Clinton yesterday gave a speech on the fifth anniversary of the war only to face questions about the economy, and Obama tried to fend off attacks stemming from his Chicago pastor’s racially charged sermons. And for McCain, not only did the trip get little attention, it became overshadowed by Vice President Cheney’s own unannounced trip to Baghdad, thus further tying the senator to the incumbent administration in the public mind.

Iraq no doubt will get more attention again tomorrow, on the actual anniversary, and again in early April, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker return to brief Congress again. And it may be as much of a mistake to assume now that Iraq will no longer be a dominant issue as it was to see it as the likely main one last year.

One thing the changing climate shows is that politics is never so simple or predictable. After all, if seven months ago the election seemed to turn entirely on Iraq and today it seems less focused on the war, who knows what will be front and center seven months from now?

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