Mr. Obama Goes To Baghdad

Do candidates have to visit Iraq before they can set a war policy?

Lately, John McCain and the GOP have been attacking Barack Obama for not having recently visited Iraq. (The RNC’s Web site features a running clock showing the amount of time that has elapsed since Obama’s last visit.) Now that Obama has announced he’s planning a trip, McCain is hitting him for, before the visit, allegedly having already made up his mind about withdrawing troops, telling a crowd in New Mexico on Tuesday: “[Obama] is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to Gen. Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time.”

The press has, almost uniformly, transcribed this line of argument (see this from CNN, this from the Associated Press, and this from The New York Times, among many other examples). In doing so, it has helped promote the notion that physically traveling to a war zone is close to the be-all-and-end-all of setting war policy.

But that notion could use some closer scrutiny. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what Obama’s visit will entail. (Will he be speaking to commanders on the ground who can genuinely give him a better sense of the situation than he gets from Washington? Will he visit genuine combat areas, or just drop in for a photo-op in the Green Zone?) Those questions will likely be answered in due time.

Rather, it’s that the press doesn’t seem interested in assessing how and in what ways, exactly, visiting Iraq might help a candidate formulate his Iraq policy. What will it tell him that he couldn’t have learned in Washington? How might Obama incorporate what he learns with his long-standing belief that, tactics aside, even victory in Iraq—however that’s defined—isn’t worth the costs, and that America’s finite resources could more profitably be spent in places that are more central to the fight against al Qaeda (like maybe here)?

Obama’s decision to visit Iraq proves only that he thinks that there’s a PR value to being photographed in Iraq. It says nothing about the underlying substance of the issue.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that visiting Iraq couldn’t help a candidate set policy. But right now, by uncritically repeating McCain’s assertion that it’s irresponsible to set policy before such a visit, the press is allowing the debate to be waged on a level so superficial that it becomes hard for the public to assess the question for itself.

And since John McCain has chosen to make this issue the centerpiece of his recent attacks on Obama, that means the press is failing to give people the tools they need to evaluate a crucial campaign debate.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.