Will the Iraq Withdrawal Impact the Election?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Penn: From Bin Laden to Gaddafi, Obama has shown he can answer the 3 a.m. call, displaying commitment, confidence and the will to define a tough military situation and act strategically. His recent announcement to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 solidifies his position as a strong Commander in Chief who is keeping his most basic promise to the American people. Obama started his 2008 campaign as the president who would bring home the troops in Iraq by the end of 2011, and he is now starting his 2012 campaign as the president who did just that. George W. Bush started this war but it was Obama who finished it. This is a very powerful message for the American people — it’s concrete and resounds with most Americans who have favored a quick end to this war for years.

The Republicans are trying to make hay over the fact that Obama withdrew all troops rather than leaving a small force behind just in case hostilities should break out again. But he refused to cave in to subjecting our troops to potential prosecution without immunity and made the right decision in terms of both policy and politics. A few thousand troops would make no difference if war broke out again; now he can say he ended it definitively going into the 2012 election and that will help him with the voters. The Republican criticism will only enable Obama to strike a greater contrast between himself and the GOP nominees, enabling him to draw a clear difference on what has emerged as his greatest strength. Couple that with the fact that the Iraq war was hugely unpopular with the American people, and the Republicans can make Obama’s day by harping on wanting to have more troops back in Iraq.

(MORE: How Much Trouble Is Obama Really In?)

Hughes: Probably not much, but the final answer hinges more on what happens in Iraq than on what happens in America. In the weeks ahead, all Americans, of all political persuasions, will join in applauding our troops as they return home from a job well and successfully done. We will honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for the cause of freedom. We will rejoice for those coming home to their families. As an Army brat whose most vivid and painful childhood memory remains sending my father off to the Vietnam War, I know how eager our military families are to be reunited. The pictures and stories of happy homecomings may well give a brief political boost to President Obama, who can now rightly say he ended the war (although he probably won’t mention that it was President Bush who put in place the timeline for successfully concluding the war before he left office).

Yet President Obama’s failure to reach an agreement allowing a small ongoing presence of US troops in Iraq for training and counter-terrorism activities may well become a political liability. A sharp escalation of sectarian violence, an increase in al-Qaeda attacks, or increasingly aggressive intervention by Iran, could all cause Americans to conclude President Obama acted precipitously, jeopardizing the important gains we made during nine years of great sacrifice by our military. Whether the President was unable to negotiate the proper legal conditions for a focused, ongoing military presence in Iraq because he didn’t want to or didn’t try hard enough, it was a diplomatic failure that could undermine our military success.

The most important issues in this campaign remain creating jobs and improving the economy at home. Yet what happens in Iraq matters — both politically and strategically. In the short run, President Obama may get some credit from his liberal base for fulfilling a campaign promise to end the war. But those voters are already among his most ardent supporters. If conditions in Iraq deteriorate dramatically, with terrorist attacks and growing Iranian influence, it will become a campaign issue. And the far bigger impact could come in whether we witness longer term costs to America’s security and influence in this vital region of the world.

(MORE: Iraq’s Government, Not Obama, Called Time on U.S. Troop Presence)