I generally found the debate on Iraq during the primary campaign unedifying.
Our Democratic Party candidates competed with each other to convince a largely anti-war primary electorate (and general public for that matter) that they will be the one to “end the war” and get our troops home (even though the departure of our troops doesn’t mean war in Iraq has actually ceased, just our active participation in it). Because they all took the same position for the most part, save for some small differences on timing, or whether some body of troops will stay behind to fight Al Qaeda or check Iran, the nuance in the debate was largely indecipherable (despite Joe Biden’s best efforts to present a dose of reality). The voters were mostly left to determine who is better on Iraq by looking at past history and a candidate’s votes and/or position on the war in the first place, which of course matters a lot, but only tells us so much about what they will do going forward, which may matter more. Rarely did the debate among our candidates get into the nitty gritty of what a forward looking Iraq policy should be or what our goals there should be.
Looking ahead though, in facing McCain, as big an architect of the war and current strategy in Iraq as their is, our candidate will have to raise the level of debate – to orient it to the future as well as the past.
Obama (unlike Clinton) will be able to contrast his opposition to the war from the start with McCain’s position for it. But, while that is a critical component in making the case for a new direction in Iraq and foreign policy, criticizing the past will only get him so far. To build on that critique, Obama will need to credibly define what his view of success in Iraq looks like, something the Democratic primary electorate wasn’t too bothered about as long as we were told the troops will come home.