Looks like John McCain and Barack Obama are giving us a preview of the general election’s Iraq debate.

In the Wisconsin Democratic debate, Obama said: “If Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.”

John McCain later responded: “I have news for Senator Obama. Al Qaeda is in Iraq. And that’s why we’re fighting in Iraq, and that’s why we’re succeeding in Iraq.”

The long distance argument continued when Obama later said: “I have some news for John McCain, and that is there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.”

That last quote from Obama is what bothers me so much about the Democratic position on Iraq. Yes, he’s absolutely right that al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist until we blew open the door and they streamed in. However, in terms of making policy in the here-and-now, what does it matter how al Qaeda got to Iraq? The real focus should be on defeating them or at least keeping them from ever organizing the kind of operations that threaten the stability of Iraq and the security of the United States.

Now, according to Obama’s first quote, he is comfortable taking action against al Qaeda in Iraq if they form a base. I don’t know what Obama’s definition of “base” is but al Qaeda is certainly already active in Iraq and I don’t think it’s a radical position to think our goal should be to stop them from forming bases rather than holding off action until they do. I fail to see how quick withdrawal of our troops is the most sensible way to stop al Qaeda from gaining/regaining footholds. Shouldn’t we at least wait until the commanders on the ground deem the al Qaeda presence negligible or deem the Iraqi army and police capable of taking whatever further actions are needed?

I don’t think our speedy withdrawal from Iraq will suddenly inspire the Iraqi government to come together, patch up their differences and go out and secure their territories. If you believe we have a duty to act against al Qaeda in Iraq, as Obama says he believes, then why take away our troops when, in all likelihood, we’d have to send them back in the moment the place slips into the chaos caused by the vacuum of our absence?

I know there are many Americans desperate for us to get out, regardless of what the future consequences of a quick withdrawal may be. However, I think there are many more Americans who, while fatigued over the war and upset that we ever got into this mess, understand that the situation in Iraq is delicate and requires careful action so that the progress of the last nine months doesn’t evaporate. Obama has to convince those Americans that his plan is based on military, moral and national security interests and not just on the wishes of the anti-war agitators in his party.

Obama can certainly make an issue out of McCain’s judgment , using the Arizona senator’s support of the invasion to call into question his fitness to make future decisions. But that’s really where the debate about the invasion ends. We’re a long way from then. We need plans based on the realities of today and not on the complaints of yesteryear.

Politics McCain and Obama Begin the Iraq Debate