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Fool voters twice? 

It is hard to imagine that Americans could fall for the same absurd decoy twice, not after seeing the disastrous consequences of their first deception. But that is what John McCain and the desperate leadership of the Republican Party have in mind.

The war in Iraq and the presidential election, McCain averred last week, is about keeping the United States safe from al Qaeda. Barack Obama would surrender Iraq to al Qaeda, McCain said, but he on the other hand would keep the war going and protect us from the terrorists.

That in a nutshell is the presidential race in the fall, whether Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton is the Democratic nominee. McCain has no other issue unless the Democratic candidate hands him one — McCain opposed the Republican economic policies of the Bush years as strongly as did the Democratic candidates and for the same reasons — and he said he was perfectly willing for the election to be decided on the single issue of the war in Iraq.

That is an amazing risk for a candidate and a party to take, given that a full 65 percent of Americans believe that the war was a cataclysmic blunder and that most now acknowledge that Bush and Dick Cheney were lying when they said Iraq and Saddam Hussein were complicit in the 9/11 attacks and conspired with Osama bin Laden. That was the deceit that brought reluctant Americans on board with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Can they make it work again? McCain stands well in the polls against either Democrat, but it is a product of his image as a war hero and a straight-talker. If he makes Iraq the issue you have to believe that it will take more than McCain's tough words to reignite the fear of terrorist attacks that served Bush so well in 2003 and for three years afterward.

McCain and perhaps the party's congressional leadership sense that people may be willing to take a second look at the war as a strategic objective because they seem to look favorably on the surge. Now the Republicans want a full debate on war funding, a dialogue that Democrats ought to be eager to have but somehow aren't.

All year McCain has attacked Clinton and Obama for saying that they would withdraw troops from Iraq beginning almost immediately after taking office. In the Texas debate, Obama said in answer to a question that he might attack al Qaeda in Iraq after Americans left if he found that it was establishing a strong base there.

“My friends,” McCain said the next day, “if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base. They'd be taking a country, and I'm not going to allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to al Qaeda.” He said leaving Iraq would be “waving the white flag” to al Qaeda.

It was an astonishing distortion of reality by the straight talker. No military authority or Iraqi expert agrees with McCain that al Qaeda is a threat to take power in Iraq or any other nation, even in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the real al Qaeda operates. The little band of terrorists who call themselves al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which may or may not have any connection with Osama bin Laden, deliver a lot of misery to their Shiite enemies and occasionally to Americans, but they are not the central objective of U.S. forces. McCain cannot even invoke Gen. David Petraeus for that canard.

Here is the general's description of “The Nature of the Conflict,” as he presented it to Congress: “The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources.” It is between the Shiite and Sunni branches of the Muslim faith, the ethnic Kurds and some tribal subdivisions. The American invasion replaced the minority but dominant Sunnis with the majority Shiites. It is the central achievement of U.S. policy and, for good or ill, it is that achievement that the occupation protects.

As the visit of the Iranian prime minister made embarrassingly clear this week, it is a strategic objective that we share with Iran. The Shiite government that we facilitated to power is closely aligned with Iran, the enemy of Saddam Hussein and the only other Shiite government in the world. The consolidation of Shia power is also the primary success of the surge, though that is not a way that Bush or McCain would prefer to characterize it.

But it will be hard to persuade Americans that their treasure and more lives should be invested in maintaining the balance of power in favor of one branch of Islam. The Shiites will be all right after we leave. There will be blood for sure but it need not be ours.

Your chances are far better if you can raise the specter of al Qaeda and the twin towers.

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