Although Election Day is still eight months away, this is a crucial moment in the 2008 campaign. While Clinton and Obama trade blows, the Republicans are slowly winning the war over the war. And Democrats are doing very little to stop them.
The idea that the surge is working and that the U.S. is making progress -- the self-declared make or break issue of John McCain's candidacy -- is taking hold with the public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Americans -- 48 percent -- believe that the military effort in Iraq is "going well." This is an 18 percent jump from a year ago.
Along with the White House and McCain, who pounds the "surge is working" drum at almost every campaign stop, we can thank the media for much of this shift. Over the last seven months, there has been a massive 80 percent reduction in the amount of coverage devoted to the war. And this lack of attention has taken a profound toll: a new study found that public awareness of U.S. deaths in Iraq has plummeted since August 2007, when 54 percent of the public was able to say how many American soldiers had been killed in the war. Now, just 28 percent are aware that the death count is about to reach 4,000. Chilling.
So McCain and the White House PR machine are able to promote the myth of success in Iraq without much pushback from the media. Or from Democrats. Indeed, the most lasting "opposition party" image of the last few months regarding the surge is Hillary Clinton springing to her feet at the State of the Union when the president declared "Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt." Is there any wonder the public is confused?
The fact remains: the surge is not working. Indeed, it is an abject failure on many fronts.
It has failed in its primary mission of creating an atmosphere of political reconciliation. Even when the fractured Iraqi government is able to set aside its differences -- as it did last month, agreeing on a budget, setting dates for provincial elections, and approving amnesty for thousands of jailed Sunnis -- there is grave doubt about whether these agreements would ever be implemented. While hailing the passage of the provisional powers legislation as "a landmark law," Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker -- not exactly impartial observers -- warned that there could be poison pills hidden in the fine print. But even counting these measures -- passed because most of the contentious details were tabled for a later date -- only four of the 18 benchmarks set by the White House have been fully met, with another five only partially accomplished.
Yes, the number of attacks has decreased since the troop increase -- that was inevitable with the arrival of more boots on the ground. But the improved security has not, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, created an environment conducive to ordinary business and social activity -- and has not brought any real stability to the country.
And while lower than it was at its worst, the level of violence remains very high, with around 60 attacks a day on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. This is roughly the same as was occurring in the Spring of 2005. So, in the long run, things have gotten no better over the last 3 years. As Barack Obama put it during a debate at the end of January:
"The notion that somehow we have succeeded as a consequence of the recent reductions in violence means that we have set the bar so low it's buried in the sand at this point... We went from intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government to spikes and horrific levels of violence and a dysfunctional government. And now, two years later, we're back to intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government. And in the meantime, we have spent billions of dollars, lost thousands of lives."
If this message is to penetrate the drumbeat of "the surge is working," he needs to be repeating it everyday -- not just when he's asked about it during a debate.
Here's the bloody truth: the killings and the violence are increasing again -- with another 18 people killed by a car bomb attack in Baghdad on Thursday, while Tuesday saw deadly attacks all across the country: 16 people blown up on a bus between Basra and Nasiriya, 10 killed in Kut, 5 in Duluiyah, and killings reported in Karbala, Baquba, Hilla, Mosul, and Baghdad.
There has also been an increase in U.S. casualties, with 12 Americans killed in the last four days.
There is one area, however, where the surge has been a resounding success: it has succeeded in seriously damaging the capabilities of the U.S. military. Extended tours, abbreviated stints back home between deployments, stop-loss orders, lowered recruitment standards, declining sign-ups, 158,000 troops in Iraq, another 28,000 in Afghanistan, depleted equipment, vets' families coming apart at the seams, and even 121 returning soldiers being arrested for murder. It's a recipe for a military meltdown.
"The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war," Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey told the senate last month, "have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future."
At the same hearing, Army Secretary Pete Geren summed up the situation: "We are consuming readiness now, as quickly as we're building it."
Just as the Athenian army was lost in the quarries of Sicily, the American army is being lost in the deserts of Iraq.
All of which puts the onus on Democrats to forcefully, unequivocally - and immediately -- make the case that the surge is not working. If not, the numbers of Americans looking at Iraq with McCain-provided rose colored glasses will continue to rise -- while the chances of getting real change in November will rapidly fall.