Barack Obama has made a campaign issue of his good judgment on the Middle East, and I’m beginning to wonder if that good judgment now has him exactly where John McCain wants him.

From the get-go Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq as the wrong war for the wrong reasons. McCain lined up behind his president. Now Obama wants to redeploy our Middle East forces. He wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times on July 14: “Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Irag is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq. As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan.”

Famous last words — “finish the job in Afghanistan.” American and allied armies invaded soon after 9/11 and overthrew the Taliban in a few weeks, but it turned out the job wasn’t finished. The Taliban leaked back in. Was the problem simply that we were two combat brigades short?

“The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan,” Thomas Friedman wrote in the Times on July 30, “is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.” He approvingly quoted from a July Time cover story by Harvard professor and Kabul resident Rory Stewart: “A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge, and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining.”

Friedman supported the Iraqi invasion in the beginning, though not for the reasons President Bush gave to the nation. Friedman sees the whole, vast Arab-Muslim world as a dysfunctional realm that has failed at modernity. Far more important than the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Friedman believes, is the creation of “islands of decent and consensual government” that offer young people an alternative to clerical nihilism. He thought Iraq could become such an island. He seems to think that again. “The reason the surge helped in Iraq,” he said in his July 30 column, “is because Iraqis took the lead in confronting their own extremists — the Shiites in their areas, the Sunnis in theirs. That is very good news.”

So McCain, if he has his wits about him, can say this: “Thanks to the surge, whose effectiveness my opponent refuses to admit, the Iraqis now see a way forward to peace and democracy. If they are correct, Iraq will set an example for the entire Muslim world of a nation prosperous, pious, progressive, and free. This is an outcome my opponent was unable to imagine and cannot imagine yet. For some reason, he’d rather fight in Afghanistan, a primitive collection of clans and warlords on the fringes of Arabia that for centuries has defied every attempt to civilize and reform it, chewing up and spitting out every invading army that tried. Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found in Afghanistan, and neither is the future of the Arab-Muslim world. My opponent is young and naive and doesn’t understand any of this.”

Maybe Obama does and maybe he doesn’t, but as violence increases in Afghanistan the idea that it’s the “good war” is being called into question even in precincts that might considered Obama’s base. The leftist listserve Portside has just forwarded me a couple of articles that warn Obama to watch out. Conn Hallinan, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus, commented, “The initial invasion in 2001 was easy because the Taliban had alienated itself from the vast majority of Afghans. But the weight of occupation, and the rising number of civilian deaths, is shifting the resistance toward a war of national liberation. No foreign power has ever won that battle in Afghanistan.”

And Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, advised Obama in Salon to talk to Russian veterans “before he jumps into Afghanistan with both feet. . . . Russian officers caution that Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Soviets attempted to do in the 1980s with nearly twice as many troops as NATO and the U.S. now have in the country, and with three times the number of Afghan troops as [President Hamid] Karzai can deploy. Afghanistan never fell to the British or Russian empires at the height of the age of colonialism. Conquering the tribal forces of a vast, rugged, thinly populated country proved beyond their powers. It may also well prove beyond the powers even of the energetic and charismatic Obama. In Iraq, he is listening to what the Iraqis want. In Pakistan, he is simply dictating policy in a somewhat bellicose fashion.”
Or as Friedman put it,  “Obama needs to ask himself honestly: ‘Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?'”
Or as John McCain might put it, “Anyone who wants to pull troops out of a vitally important country where we’re finally winning and send them to a marginal country where ultimate victory is impossible must be a Democrat.”