Finally, the public conversation about the war in Iraq is headed in a positive direction. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leaves little doubt he favors an aggressive schedule for withdrawing U.S. combat troops. President Bush still will not say "timetable" but agrees on a "general time horizon,'' which is progress. Those developments provide a boost to Sen. Barack Obama, who toured Iraq on Monday and has pledged to withdraw combat troops in the first 16 months of his presidency. The odd man out is Sen. John McCain, who refuses to acknowledge America's commitment cannot remain open-ended.
The situation in Iraq in recent months has improved, with fewer casualties and signs of strengthening political alliances and a return to public life among Iraqis fed up with violence. Maliki's demand for significant troop reductions may have caught the Bush administration off guard, and the Iraqi prime minister may have had the upcoming Iraqi elections on his mind more than the U.S. presidential campaign. But the clarity he brings to the discussion is as welcome among Americans who no longer support the war as it is among Iraqis tired of the occupation.
Overnight, it seems, the tenor of the political debate has shifted from whether the United States should make significant troop reductions to how it can be accomplished without jeopardizing the gains that have been made or providing an opening for Iran to exert more influence in the region. The reality is the United States cannot continue to endure the financial and human cost of the war, and the military already has been stretched too thin. The Iraqi government's encouragement should prod the Bush administration to begin preparing for a gradual reduction in troops that proceeds as quickly as military leaders in Iraq believe is prudent.
Obama, who has opposed the war from the start, once again benefits from good timing and apparent prescience. Maliki's demands coincided with the Democrat's highly publicized trip to Iraq. His call for direct talks with Iran and other adversaries has been ridiculed by Republicans; now the Bush administration is preparing to join multilateral talks with Iran on nuclear policy. Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawal of troops in Iraq may be too optimistic, and his willingness to meet with potential enemies may sound naive at times. But he has gotten the general theme right, and that is being confirmed by the evolving events in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.
Now McCain must scramble to find a message beyond criticizing Obama and whining about media coverage of his opponent. Sitting in a golf cart in Maine with an elderly former President Bush while Obama tours the world does not help his cause. McCain deserves credit for advocating a surge of troops in Iraq, which Obama opposed and the Bush administration was slow to embrace. The surge is one of the reasons the situation has improved. But the issue now is how to proceed, not rehashing who was for what when.
McCain and Obama are on the same page on at least one important point. The Republican who has long insisted Iraq is the main front in the war on terror now agrees with the Democrat that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating. The sad reality is that American soldiers who finally have some hope of wrapping up their tour in Iraq may not be coming home. They may be headed to another dangerous war in another country where peace and democracy remain elusive goals.