What seems most remarkable is the extent to which they agree. Oh, they differ plenty on how we got into this mess and whose fault it is -- and on who would be the better commander in chief to lead us out of it. But there is surprisingly little disagreement on where we go from here. A dispassionate reading of the McCain speech and the Obama speech finds these important agreements on principles.
1) Both candidates say the important fight going forward is in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban have grown in strength and control significant areas. Both say the status quo is unacceptable and that more U.S. troops need to be sent there as soon as possible. (McCain wants three brigades; Obama wants at least two.) And both acknowledge that these additional forces need to come from Iraq because there is no other place to get them.
2) Both call for an increase in non-military assistance to the Afghan government and for applying the lessons of counter-insurgency learned in Iraq.
3) Both say the Afghan war can only be won by working with and on the government in Pakistan, which continues to allow al Qaeda and the Taliban a relatively free hand. Obama and McCain call for making this clear to the new Pakistani leaders and for increasing U.S. assistance to Pakistan, both military and economic.
4) Both call for a far more vigorous diplomatic effort to enlist the aid of our allies and other countries in the region.
5) And both call for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Neither offers a specific date, but Obama has a 16- month timeline and McCain implies a significant withdrawal can begin quickly.
To be sure, the candidates disagree sharply on how we got where we are and who is to blame. Obama says he was right (and McCain wrong) five years ago when he argued that the U.S. should never have gone into Iraq. He says the war hasn't made the U.S. safer and has been a huge distraction from the more important fight in Afghanistan. McCain argues he was right (and Obama wrong) 18 months ago when he backed a surge in U.S. troops. He says it's only the success of the surge that now allows for a U.S. withdrawal and makes victory in Afghanistan possible. And of course they disagree sharply on who is best able to carry out the new policy -- who has the experience needed to win a war and who has fresh ideas for winning the peace.
But these are fights about the past. What is stunning is to see how much they agree on what needs to be done to move forward. One could argue that the convergence is because Obama has flip-flopped into believing the U.S. should pull out slowly or that McCain has flip-flopped into believing the U.S. should start withdrawing from Iraq now, but both arguments are false. This is really where the sober thinking has always been, and if that disappoints the diehard backers of either candidate, so be it. More important is that it is in line with the vast majority of Americans who have long told pollsters that they want the U.S. to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, but they want us to get out carefully and without leaving chaos behind. The candidates seem to want that, too. And that should be reassuring to a justly concerned public.