There's a fair amount of chatter about John McCain's comment about staying in Iraq for "100 years." Mostly, it's liberals taking him to task for it, and conservatives defending him and claiming he's being taken out of context. The mainstream media was slow overall to focus on the statement, and then mostly joined the conservatives, without pressing McCain beyond a certain point. It's been encouraging that several liberal blogs have delved into the issue, but far too many mainstream media outlets and media watchdogs haven't bothered in their "fact checks" to examine essential context for McCain's remarks. McCain's rhetoric demands a closer look, but it's also crucial to examine his entire Iraq policy.
McCain's “100 Years” Remarks
Here's the footage that’s been seen the most often, and the transcript:
Q: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years — (cut off by McCain)
McCAIN: Make it a hundred.
Q: Is that … (cut off)
McCAIN: We’ve been in South Korea … we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me. As long as Americans …
Q: [tries to say something]
McCAIN: As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me, I hope that would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training and equipping and recruiting and motivating people every single day.
As it turns out, there is extended footage (I only found it today). You can watch it (roughly six minutes) and read a more complete transcript from The New York Times here. Do check it out. To his credit, McCain takes several follow-ups from the same questioner, and in fuller context his statements make more sense. At one point, McCain says:
…The option of setting a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender and we would then have many more casualties and many more American sacrifice, if we withdraw with setting a date for surrender.
Leaving aside McCain’s use of “surrender” for the moment, in the YouTube clip, McCain is being pressed on if and when American troops will be withdrawn from Iraq (and the questioner repeatedly tries to get an answer on this point from McCain). McCain responds several times by talking about our bases in South Korea and Japan. So yes, technically, he's not talking about staying in Iraq for 100 years of warfare. McCain had already rejected a set date for withdrawal in the same exchange, but the questioner presses for more detail as to what McCain’s standard for withdrawal is, especially given the current casualty rate:
Q: I want to go back to Iraq — 50 years? What if American soldiers are being killed one per day four years from now?
McCAIN: I understand what’s at stake here. And I understand that American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continued to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.
Q: So what I hear is an open-ended commitment? An open-ended commitment? —
McCAIN: I have a quote open-ended commitment in Asia, I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea, I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia. I have an open-ended commitment in Europe. I have an open-ended commitment everywhere.
McCain and his questioner end the back and forth fairly congenially. McCain doesn’t say he wants 100 years of war. But he’s essentially saying he’ll stay the course. He says he sees progress and that “the surge” has worked, but as we’ve covered many times before, the whole point of the surge wasn’t just to reduce violence, it was to buy time for necessary political reconciliation between warring Iraqi factions, which certainly has not occurred. Meanwhile, McCain doesn’t have an exit strategy, and his standard for withdrawal is unclear. To be fair, this is one exchange. But McCain’s not even really thinking in terms of withdrawal; he’s looking at Iraq as an “open-ended commitment.” This raises the question: how many years will American troops be there if McCain has his way? 5? 10? 50? 100?
McCain says this issue isn’t “occupation” it’s “casualties.” Okay, fine, but then he keeps trying to change the subject to peacetime occupations in other countries, rather than addressing the questioner’s obvious concern about American casualties, the key gauge McCain himself has insisted on. Is there a casualty rate, or a body count number, that McCain would find too high? We don’t know from this exchange. McCain keeps bringing up South Korea, Japan, and “commitments” in other parts of the world, but these are false equivalencies that do not address the situation in Iraq. As the questioner tries to point out, our troops aren't being killed on a daily basis in South Korea, Japan (or Germany), so McCain’s comparisons are inapt at best, disingenuous dodges at worst. In WWII and the Korean War, we had clear objectives and definitive endings to warfare before peacetime occupation. With Iraq, George Bush declared "Major combat operations have ended" under a "Mission Accomplished" banner back on 5/1/03. Saddam Hussein was deposed and the war was supposedly over. What we have now can be called many things, but "the occupation of a foreign country in the middle of a civil war" is pretty accurate.
Note also in the YouTube clip that McCain mentions Al Qaeda, who are hardly the major threat in Iraq, and are primarily in Pakistan by most estimates. Even if McCain meant that troops in Iraq (or Afghanistan) would somehow help in Pakistan, that’s quite the dodge. (We can be thankful he didn’t throw in 9/11 or try to link it to Iraq, but just wait.) But given McCain’s other repeated misstatements on Iraq, many of which mirror Bush administration talking points, perhaps his Al Qaeda reference is either a deliberate attempt to confuse or a sign of his own confusion.
This brings us back to McCain’s “surrender” framing. His website touts a ”No Surrender Tour.” Frankly, it’s juvenile language reminiscent of many a right-wing screed, and disappointing coming from McCain. To whom exactly would we be surrendering? Surely not to the Iraqis. We’re occupying their country, supposedly to help them and their supposedly sovereign government. Does McCain mean Al Qaeda, perhaps? Since he’s said this elsewhere, it’s the most likely explanation. But since the millions of Iraqis would never let the much smaller extremist group Al Qaeda “take over” Iraq, that’s not a realistic threat, and since Al Qaeda is mostly in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, occupying Iraq specifically makes no sense for addressing that threat either. Meanwhile, as Matthew Yglesias remind us:
Few people seem to appreciate it, but it's quite literally true that al-Qaeda's strategy is to cripple the U.S. economy by dragging us into quagmires abroad. Osama bin Laden himself has said this, and it's the only strategy that makes sense. A smallish number of people with no base of resources can't possibly defeat us unless we shoot ourselves in the foot repeatedly as Bush and McCain propose.
Mark Danner and others have made the same point. Whether McCain meant Al Qaeda or not with “surrender,” the policy that he considers “no surrender” happens to entail an Al Qaeda victory.
There are more problems with McCain’s Iraq views, and we’ll explore them. But if we're being precise, McCain has been misquoted in his “100 years” statement, and he did offer a more full accounting of his views — but he also dodged pertinent questions of withdrawal, the rate of casualties, and larger issues about the reality of Iraq. His positive assessments of Iraq are highly questionable, as are his actual policies.
After hearing McCain’s "100 years" statement, and even the longer exchange, listeners may be left wondering: What exactly is McCain’s policy on Iraq? How long will we stay? Under what circumstances, if any, would McCain advocate withdrawal? More bluntly, does he understand how bad it is over there, is he sufficiently concerned about the violence, and is there any American body count number that would make him break from George W. Bush’s Iraq policy and withdraw our troops?
I'm no fan of "gotcha" journalism, our media is pretty damn shallow, and I don't like the way off-handed statements and trivial matters are elevated to prime importance while actual policies are deemed too boring to cover. Were I a reporter, I'd want to grill McCain extensively on his precise views on Iraq. Since I’m not and don’t have that access, it’s time to examine the public record further.
McCain has been asked several times about the "100 years" statement, including back on 1/3/08 when he made the remark. As David Corn reported in Mother Jones, McCain added that American troops could stay in Iraq for "a thousand years" or "a million years." Here's the larger context:
The United States military could stay in Iraq for "maybe a hundred years" and that "would be fine with me," John McCain told two hundred or so people at a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, on Thursday evening. Toward the end of this session, which was being held shortly before the Iowa caucuses were to start, McCain was confronted by Dave Tiffany, who calls himself a "full-time antiwar activist." In a heated exchange, Tiffany told McCain that he had looked at McCain's campaign website and had found no indication of how long McCain was willing to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. Arguing that George W. Bush's escalation of troops has led to a decline in U.S. casualties, McCain noted that the United States still maintains troops in South Korea and Japan. He said he had no objection to U.S. soldiers staying in Iraq for decades, "as long as Americans are not being injured, harmed or killed."
After the event ended, I asked McCain about his "hundred years" comment, and he reaffirmed the remark, excitedly declaring that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for "a thousand years" or "a million years," as far as he was concerned. The key matter, he explained, was whether they were being killed or not: "It's not American presence; it's American casualties." U.S. troops, he continued, are stationed in South Korea, Japan, Europe, Bosnia, and elsewhere as part of a "generally accepted policy of America's multilateralism." There's nothing wrong with Iraq being part of that policy, providing the government in Baghdad does not object.
In other words, McCain does not equate victory in Iraq--which he passionately urges at campaign events--with the removal of U.S. troops from that nation. After McCain told Tiffany that he could see troops remaining in Iraq for a hundred years, a reporter sitting next to me quipped, "There's the general election campaign ad." He meant the Democratic ad: John McCain thinks it would be okay if U.S. troops stayed in Iraq for another hundred years…
At best, McCain is introducing a different standard for assessing how long we stay in Iraq, but again, talking constantly about South Korea doesn’t address the American casualties McCain says are more important. Speaking of Iraq in hypothetical, rosy terms doesn’t address the dire realities. That’s not to mention that while the American-supported Iraqi central government doesn’t want us to leave, 70% of Iraqis wants us out. How exactly does McCain propose we move from the current violence to this long-time peaceful occupation of his? Are there any circumstances in which McCain would withdraw American troops? And how is he addressing the true situation in Iraq?
Defenses of McCain
I imagine most readers can spot the trademark disingenuousness of Charles Krauthammer in his op-ed "'A Rank Falsehood'" (previously covered by Buck). I’m happy to dissect it one paragraph at a time if need be, but Krauthammer's key devices are to pretend that McCain's peacetime occupation analogies make perfect sense, that Iraq isn’t ravaged by violence and American troops aren't being killed, and that McCain's intent to stay the course without an exit strategy or timetable for withdrawal somehow means he's opposed to staying in Iraq indefinitely. (Keep in mind, too, that while Krauthammer may not be quite as bloodthirsty as his fellow neocons William Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, he's pretty damn close.)
Other defenders of McCain argue similar points. National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez chastises Democrats for mischaracterizing McCain’s “100 years” remarks, then insists McCain does so have an exit strategy, although apparently it's actually ‘stay the course,’ since Lopez argues that:
When asked to clarify, [McCain] would go on to say that it could be 1,000 years, or even a million years. These are the lines that try Democrats’ souls. But McCain was right about the long war. It was a sensible answer. And though it doesn’t sound like the most attractive answer — who wants 100 years in Iraq? — it was straight talk from a senator who has a better track record on Iraq than most. And it may not hurt his campaign, either.
She then quotes the same outlier poll conservatives have consistently cited to falsely suggest that the American people want us to stay in Iraq when they clearly don't. Unpacking Lopez' attempts at logic is similar to trying the same with her compatriot Jonah Goldberg, but it sure seems like she's contradicted her own thesis, conceding that Obama's and Clinton's claims about McCain are essentially accurate. (She should have stuck to, "Yeah, what of it?" rather than trying, "They're lying.")
I suppose one could argue that "stay the course" or any variation thereof is an exit strategy, just a really crappy, open-ended one. One can occasionally hear occupation proponents claim they're for withdrawal, too, just at some future, unspecified date. Of course, there's plenty of specious bullshit on Iraq out there, but anyone who opposes withdrawing troops in the immediate future — and doesn't oppose permanent bases — isn't for "withdrawal" as it's commonly understood.
Turning to more honestly-inclined debunkers, The Annenberg Public Policy Center is correct that McCain has been taken out of context, but they fail to note that his “100 years” statement avoided the issue of withdrawal and that he has no exit strategy. McCain did not say he supports “endless war,” but he does not have a plan to end the violence in Iraq or our occupation there.
The tireless Bob Somerby is correct in pointing out that Eugene Robinson mischaracterizes McCain's statement when he writes "At this rate, John McCain is going to be proved right: The war will last a century." However, as Somerby even quotes, Robinson also writes "In and around Seoul, citizens aren't shooting at American soldiers or trying to blow them up with roadside bombs—and U.S. combat forces aren't taking sides in bloody internecine battles over power and wealth." That's directly pertinent, and while Robinson may be sloppy, imprecise or even a hack, as Somerby essentially charges, Robinson's correct that McCain's analogy was nonsensical, that Bush and McCain's portrayals of Iraq are unrealistic, and McCain essentially promises to continue Bush administration policies.
When Tim Russert asks one of his signature, imbecilic “gotcha” questions, he typically pushes politicians to subscribe to a simplistic, black and white approach to issues. When the press does a poor job, they typically misquote or misrepresent someone, most often oversimplifying someone’s position (or they even lie, as occurred with poor Al Gore). What I find interesting about McCain’s “100 years” statement is that while he was taken out of context, and in larger context his statement makes more sense, the specific clip making the rounds shows him bullshitting, as he did several times with that questioner, and has done with other questioners since. Others are free to disagree with that assessment. But my personal take is that McCain tried a combination of his usual macho bluster and an off-point dodge and got burned by our sound bite culture. Given that I view his answer as both disingenuous and fairly representative of his actual extremism, I don't think claiming he said we'd stay in Iraq for 100 years if need be is actually that far off a characterization. At least one of his would-be defenders, Lopez, essentially agrees with it. I’d prefer to see McCain asked to articulate his Iraq policy and challenged on its unrealistic or dangerous aspects. But I can’t be fully sympathetic to McCain suffering due to his own bullshit.
I certainly don’t question the motives of Annenberg or Somerby (he does superb work), although in this case I think they miss key questions raised by McCain’s rhetoric. But it's ironic and laughable that Krauthammer, Lopez and their ilk are complaining in full high dudgeon mode that McCain was misrepresented. That’s what they do all the time. If we're being precise, let's be precise and complete, both about what McCain said and what he failed to address. Let's discuss whether McCain's views on Iraq reflect reality. Let's discuss whether his policies are wise. Let's discuss how they differ from Bush's — although they really don't. The bottom line for Krauthammer and his gang is that an honest discussion of Iraq cannot possibly help the GOP in November, and a truly close examination could hurt them for a generation. If they want to cry foul about McCain, fine, but they're trying to game the ref, not elevate the discourse.
Since I started this post, Steve Benen, Jamison Foser and Bill Scher have all made key points about McCain’s “100 years” remarks far more pithily. However, I think it’s still worthwhile to examine McCain’s other Iraq statements.
McCain’s “100 Years” comment happened to be the latest change of position for him. As Think Progress noted:
McCain’s latest comments complete a full flip-flop-flip. He previously said that the Korea model was “exactly” the right idea for Iraq. But in late November, he abandoned it on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show:ROSE: Do you think that this — Korea, South Korea is an analogy of where Iraq might be, not in terms of their economic success but in terms of an American presence over the next, say, 20, 25 years, that we will have a significant amount of troops there?
MCCAIN: I don’t think so.
ROSE: Even if there are no casualties?
MCCAIN: No. But I can see an American presence for a while. But eventually I think because of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws.
Consider also this Think Progress post, which shows McCain on Face the Nation defending his "100 years" statement, saying that "I don’t think Americans are concerned if we’re there for one hundred years or a thousand years or ten thousand years." The same post shows McCain on Meet the Press, supporting permanent military bases in Iraq "if that seems to be necessary," yet also quotes this McCain exchange on This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So no permanent bases?
McCAIN: No, not forever, but certainly, we would be there for a long period of time in a support role, in many ways.
Think Progress remarks, "But by McCain’s logic, 10,000 or even one million years is not "forever.""
McCain changed positions within a few months in two Charlie Rose appearances alone, not to mention the other three talk shows. McCain should certainly be allowed to clarify himself, but those are fairly significant reversals, and even the most charitable interpretations aren't positive. Perhaps McCain hopes that permanent bases won't be necessary, but fears they may be. Okay. But that would still leave us with McCain invoking a ludicrous model of long-time peacetime occupation that doesn't address the public opinion under discussion, the push to withdraw, and certainly doesn't address the realities of violence and chaos in Iraq.
Every politician should also be allowed to adopt better policies than those he or she previously championed. However, McCain is trying to sell the idea that his rhetoric and policies on Iraq have been both consistent (see the ”John McCain on Iraq” timeline on his website, or any of a number of press appearances) and consistently wise. Yet in addition to the above examples, McCain has repeatedly misrepresented some of his past positions, and the press has been happy to repeat these misrepresentations.
Much more importantly, McCain’s policies would be as disastrous as Bush’s, which is no surprise, since they’re almost identical (more on this below).
McCain’s Hawkish History
McCain has a history of extreme hawkishness and joking about war. Buck recently brought up McCain’s “Bomb Iran” song, not one of McCain’s finer moments. Then there’s this classic of hypothetical leadership from 2006:
“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.
The National Security Network has a post detailing how ”McCain's Rhetoric Doesn't Reflect Reality.” While it’s a valuable post for challenging his current claims about Iraq, what I find most striking is looking at McCain’a record over the past ten years. Consistently, he’s been extremely aggressive, arguing at times for military action against Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. He also opposed peace efforts in Northern Ireland. Additionally, he’s consistently mocked war opponents and foreign leaders working for diplomatic solutions. (I'll leave it to TBogg to handle the "warmonger" label.)
Meanwhile, as Robert Dreyfus discussed with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, McCain has deep ties with the neocons. McCain is proud of his pushes for troop escalation, and has pushed for permanent bases in Iraq (except on some nights with Charlie Rose, apparently). Here’s Dreyfus’ most chilling claim:
When I look at McCain, though, I have to say, I go back to Vietnam. This is a man whose father and grandfather were extremely conservative, even rightwing admirals, who served in Vietnam until he was shot down and held as a POW, conducting air raid missions, dropping napalm on Hanoi and other cities in North Vietnam, who learned from that and became convinced that American military power, if it’s constrained by politics, was unable to win that war. And so, he took out of Vietnam not the lesson that we shouldn’t get into land wars in Asia or that fighting guerrilla counterinsurgency efforts might not be the task that America’s military is most suited for; what he learned in Vietnam is that we need to take the gloves off, that the politicians need to get out of the way and let the military do its job.
And that’s precisely the message that he’s adopted in approaching Iraq. I think to this day, McCain thinks that the Vietnam War could have been won if we had just stayed another five or ten or fifteen years, and he seems exactly prepared to do that in Iraq, despite all evidence to the contrary that we can’t do anything in Iraq other than sit on a very ugly stalemate that, you know, continues to blow up and flare into violence.
McCain’s psychology may be elusive, but his policies are much less so. While his rhetoric and perhaps some specific positions on Iraq have shifted, his policies have never included an exit strategy. It's always been variations on "stay the course."
At this point, most news junkies should be aware of McCain’s repeated gaffes on Iraq, confusing Shiites and Sunnis, throwing in charges of Iranian collaboration, and occasionally bringing in Al Qaeda as well.
It’s also worth noting that Lieberman’s “correction” about "extremists" to McCain’s most reported misstatement was misleading at best, a lie at worst. Lieberman has repeatedly made unsubstantiated charges that Iran has played a key role in attacks on American troops in Iraq by supplying arms or other support. But as Gary Kamiya points out, “The truth is that the Maliki government and its allied Shiite faction, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly known as SCIRI), are much closer to Iran than the Sadrists are.” Lieberman’s been a key saber-rattler against Iran for some time, as has been McCain, and Lieberman's claims about Iraq have often been at odds with reality, just as with McCain. Lieberman's even claimed that “If we did what Sen. Obama wanted us to do last year, Al-Qaeda in Iran would be in control of Iraq today." Not only is Sunni Al Qaeda not in Shiite Iran, but even if Lieberman misspoke on that point, as Steve Benen points out:
…Even if we give Lieberman the benefit of the doubt, his comments to Fox News are still nonsense. There’s simply no way AQI could take “control” of Iraq. It is, after all, a small, “fragmented, clandestine, non-Iraqi terrorist organization,” which most Iraqis have already turned against.
Benen also provides quite the archive of McCain’s gaffes, corrections, clarifications, retractions, and bold assertions:
”Al Qaeda gaffe dogs McCain, undermines campaign rationale” (3/19/08).
McCain compounds al Qaeda gaffe by repeating for a fourth time (3/19/08).
”Obama: McCain ‘fails to understand’ consequences of war in Iraq” (3/19/08).
”McCain isn’t the only one confused about al Qaeda” (3/20/08).
”Conservatives sure were smart about Iraq — in the early ’90s” (3/20/08).
”Note to McCain: When you fall in a ditch, stop digging” (3/20/08).
”McCain campaign reverses course, says McCain was right all along” (3/21/08).
”McCain’s Gerald Ford Moment” (3/22/08).
And so on. Anyone following the liberal blogs knows how the press covered for McCain, made excuses, and generally downplayed his repeated gaffes. That’s not liable to stop any time soon, even though the gaffes keep coming, as with McCain’s recent inaccurate claims about Basra. Perhaps McCain is actually confused. If not, he’s bullshitting, or it’s some combination of the two.
McCain’s website currently lists several factors for “Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” The first one is “Bolster Troops on the Ground.” (At first I thought his campaign hadn’t bothered to update the site, but after reading his most recent speech, I’m no longer sure.) The site also includes this section (emphasis added):
Win the Homefront
If efforts in Iraq do not retain the support of the American people, the war will be lost as soundly as if our forces were defeated in battle. A renewed effort at home starts with explaining precisely what is at stake in this war to ensure that Americans fully understand the high cost of a military defeat. The war in Iraq is at a crossroads and the future of the entire region is at stake - a region that produced the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11 and where much of the world's energy supplies are located. Success is essential to creating peace in the region, and failure would expose the United States to national security threats for generations. Defeat in the war would lead to much more violence in Iraq, greatly embolden Iran, undermine U.S. allies such as Israel, likely lead to wider conflict, result in a terrorist safe haven in the heart of the Middle East, and gravely damage U.S. credibility throughout the world.
Here McCain apes Bush by mentioning 9/11 to justify our presence in Iraq, and apes one of Cheney’s most deliberately misleading (and bigoted) pre-war statements. “A region that produced the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11”? The 9/11 hijackers weren’t from Iraq, they were mostly from Saudi Arabia, our erstwhile ally. But hey, all those people over there look the same, right? Who can tell all those Sunnis and Shiites apart? Judging from his repeated gaffes, certainly not John McCain!
McCain’s other premises are similarly faulty (as will become clearer with some of his later speeches). Even Joe Klein realizes a long-time American occupation of Iraq would breed still greater resentment in the Middle East, and would interfere with “peace” in the region. As the 2007 Iraq N.I.E. made clear, our invasion of Iraq has made us much less safe, because the invasion’s provided a perfect recruitment tool for terrorists, attacking Americans in Iraq has provided perfect training for insurgent techniques, and dislike of America has grown to staggering highs. Iran is already much stronger in regional influence thanks to our invasion of Iraq. By most accounts, Al Qaeda already has a relatively "safe haven" in the Middle East, Pakistan, and they can’t possibly “take over” Iraq. As for Israel, besides their war with Lebanon, ire has grown in part because of the Bush administration’s refusal to be a honest broker on the Palestinian issue, and, oh, the Bush administration's disastrous, unsuccessful attempt at a covert coup. U.S. credibility is already shot to hell, certainly in the Middle East, but in the rest of the world, too, and that isn't going to change under this president or anyone mad enough to continue his legacy.
McCain’s promise to honestly discuss the costs of our continued occupation in Iraq with the American people would be refreshing, except if McCain is delusional — or lying — it’s pointless.
A McCain Presidency: Bush’s Third Term
John McCain and Ron Paul were easily the most honest about Iraq during the early Republican debates. McCain then basically said things were mismanaged, Iraq was in bad straits, but progress had been made, the corner had been turned, the going would be tough but we had to stay. Some of his claims about Iraq were questionable, some of his representations of his past positions were false, but he was significantly less rosy than his fellow Republicans, even if I'd argue his Iraq policy was still problematic at best.
McCain doesn't look any better on closer examination, though, and the differences between his polices and those of the Bush administration are slight at best. Read over his major foreign policy speech on 3/26/08. As Glenn Greenwald states in "Bush and McCain's shared foreign policy approach":
On Wednesday, John McCain delivered what was billed as a "major foreign policy" speech and today, David Brooks gushed that it was "as personal, nuanced and ambitious a speech as any made by a presidential candidate this year." In particular, Brooks said that the speech demonstrates just how different McCain's foreign policy approach is from that of Bush/Cheney: "Anybody who thinks McCain is merely continuing the Bush agenda is not paying attention."
The reality is exactly the opposite. Thematically, rhetorically and substantively, McCain's speech, particularly as it concerned the Middle East, was essentially a replica of the speech George Bush has been giving for the last seven years. It trumpeted virtually every tenet of the neoconservative faith: to be safe, the U.S. must slay tyranny around the world, spread democracy, bring freedom to the grateful peoples of the Middle East so they turn towards us and away from the Terrorists, using "more than military force" -- but also military force. We'll only be safe by controlling and transforming the Middle East to look the way we want it to look.
McCain is a pure neoconservative in exactly the way that Bush and Cheney are, which is exactly why David Brooks, and like-minded ideologues like Bill Kristol, swoon over McCain's foreign policy "principles." That's fine. Brooks is a neoconservative and it's thus perfectly natural that he would find a neoconservative foreign policy speech to be filled with wisdom and insight. But to pretend that it's some grand departure from the Bush/Cheney approach is pure deceit.
McCain's speech is full of claims we've already addressed, but two sections deserve closer attention. Near the end he says:
If we withdraw prematurely from Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq will survive, proclaim victory and continue to provoke sectarian tensions that, while they have been subdued by the success of the surge, still exist, as various factions of Sunni and Shi'a have yet to move beyond their ancient hatreds, and are ripe for provocation by al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda can't take over Iraq, nor have they been the chief source of "sectarian tensions." Central causes for "sectarian tensions" in Iraq include America's failure to prevent looting after entering Baghdad, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, de-Baathification, and the failure to provide jobs for all the armed, unemployed Iraqis shut out by the Bush administration's reconstruction plans (see Frontline’s ”The Lost Year in Iraq”). But McCain deflects blame onto those Arab folks. Meanwhile, "provocation" to hate America sadly doesn't need much spurring from Al Qaeda, and staying in Iraq will only increase that "provocation."
This paragraph also stood out:
Those who argue that our goals in Iraq are unachievable are wrong, just as they were wrong a year ago when they declared the war in Iraq already lost. Since June 2007 sectarian and ethnic violence in Iraq has been reduced by 90 percent. Overall civilian deaths have been reduced by more than 70 percent. Deaths of coalition forces have fallen by 70 percent. The dramatic reduction in violence has opened the way for a return to something approaching normal political and economic life for the average Iraqi. People are going back to work. Markets are open. Oil revenues are climbing. Inflation is down. Iraq's economy is expected to grown by roughly 7 percent in 2008. Political reconciliation is occurring across Iraq at the local and provincial grassroots level. Sunni and Shi'a chased from their homes by terrorist and sectarian violence are returning. Political progress at the national level has been far too slow, but there is progress.
Any decrease in violence is most welcome, and I won't debunk McCain's claims line by line, but for starters, the open-air market he visited in April 2007 while wearing a flak jacket and accompanied by 100 troops and a few helicopters is no longer safe for Americans to visit even with those conditions. For more detail on what McCain's ignoring, I'll refer you to "That Pesky Violence in Iraq," "The Surge is Still Not Working," "Iraq Watch 4/7/08" and "Nir Rosen on Iraq." McCain is misrepresenting reality. On two recent occasions, a McCain speech on Iraq has actually been interrupted by reports of violence in Iraq, including attacks on the Green Zone.
McCain's basic campaign pitch is the same as Bush's back in 2004: You may not like what I stand for, but you know what I stand for. As with Bush, McCain's pitch doesn't bear out. Although McCain is a vet, he hasn't supported a bipartisan GI Bill, and his surrogates have offered ridiculous, off-point arguments for opposing it. Perhaps the main objection is allowing Democrats even a shared victory in legislation, which would be perfectly in line with the Bush administration's pattern of attacking Democrats, even if the Bush administration later adopt their plans.
McCain's capitulation on torture has been well documented, and it's really rather sad, although seeing reporters make excuses for McCain for it is just pathetic.
Bush has stubbornly stuck with policies in denial of all facts and heedless of disastrous results, most tragically with Iraq. Even if McCain doesn't speak of Iraq quite as simplistically as Bush, he similarly misrepresents its complexity and true situation, and apparently lives in an alternative reality as does Bush. McCain also shares Bush's obstinacy in the face of reality and disdain for dissenting views:
“We’re succeeding,” Mr. McCain said after his last trip to Iraq. “I don’t care what anybody says.”
McCain’s Latest Speech
McCain just gave a speech specifically on Iraq this Monday, 4/7/08. Go ahead and read or watch the entire speech, but here are some highlights:
The job of bringing security to Iraq is not finished. Iraqi forces recently battled in Basra against radical Shi'a militias, supported by Iran, a fight that showed both the progress made by the Iraqi security forces -- a year ago, they could not have carried out such operations on their own -- and the continuing need for coalition support. The situation in southern Iraq remains unsettled. There continues to be a significant flow of money and weaponry from Iran into Diyala Province, Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in support of the Iranian-backed Special Groups, the Jaysh al Mahdi, and the Badr Organization. Sunni terrorists and insurgents continue to maintain bases in Mosul and elsewhere in Ninewah Province.
Notice McCain is once again pushing Iran as a threat, and trying to spin Basra as a success. Actually, Moqtada al-Sadr, who the Bush administration opposes, emerged from Basra politically stronger than before, and has since grown stronger still.
But there is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq: we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success. Success in Iraq is the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists. It is the advance of religious tolerance over violent radicalism. It is a level of security that allows the Iraqi authorities to govern, the average person to live a normal life, and international entities to operate. It is a situation in which the rule of law, after decades of tyranny, takes hold. It is an Iraq where Iraqi forces have the responsibility for enforcing security in their country, and where American troops can return home, with the honor of having secured their country's interests at great personal cost, and helping another people achieve peace and self-determination.
Points to McCain for actually defining success, but his "basic reality in Iraq" simply doesn't hold up to the facts (as detailed at some length in the previously-linked Iraq posts). Meanwhile, many experts and the American people don't believe McCain's vision of "success" is achievable, certainly not without many more years in Iraq — or perhaps never if we maintain an American presence in Iraq, since that’s a key grievance for the majority of Iraqis. But McCain's arguing to stay the course.
If we are honest about the opportunities and the risks, I believe they will have the patience to allow us the time necessary to obtain our objectives. That honesty is my responsibility, and it is also the responsibility of Senators Obama and Clinton, as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing. But when 4000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of our failure in Iraq, it is a necessary thing. In such a grave matter, we must put the nation's interests before our own ambitions.
McCain's a bit more credible than Bush would be saying the same things (the irony meter would explode). We'll come back to "easy" in a minute. But McCain touches here on a classic fallacy of war often offered by Bush, best captured in all its absurdity by Garry Trudeau — it's the belief that we must "stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die." (Follow the link and read the entire brilliant strip.) The truth is that death is a tragedy, but an unnecessary death is an atrocity.
The fact is, we now have a great opportunity, not only to bring stability and freedom to Iraq, but to make Iraq a pillar of our future strategy for the entire region of the greater Middle East. If we seize the opportunity before us, we stand to gain a strong, stable, democratic ally against terrorism and a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran.
We've covered some of this with McCain's earlier speech, although I'd add referring to Iraq as "a great opportunity," given the 4-5 million displaced Iraqis and estimates of Iraqi dead ranging from roughly 80,000 to one million is unconscionable. Meanwhile, can McCain really be unaware that making "Iraq a pillar of our future strategy for the entire region of the greater Middle East" is precisely what Iraqis and most people in the Middle East don't want to hear? Gosh, could it be that he's closer to Tucker Carlson's views that we're not in Iraq to improve the lives of the Iraqi people, but there for our own interests? And on top of that, perhaps it wasn't in our best interests to invade, and it's also not in our best interests to stay?
I know the pain war causes. I understand the frustration caused by our mistakes in this war. And I regret sincerely the additional sacrifices imposed on the brave Americans who defend us. But I also know the toll a lost war takes on an army and on our country's security. By giving General Petraeus and the men and women he has the honor to command the time and support necessary to succeed in Iraq we have before us a hard road. But it is the right road. It is necessary and just. Those who disregard the unmistakable progress we have made in the last year and the terrible consequences that would ensue were we to abandon our responsibilities in Iraq have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election.
As we've covered in this and previous Iraq posts, while some progress has been made, Iraq overall has consistently been in dire straits. Even Petraeus today testified that Iraqi security improvements are fragile and reversible. McCain would surely count that as support for his views, but an improved horrendous situation remains a horrendous situation, and it's unrealistic to hold that any slight tweaking of the status quo will make things better. Meanwhile, even Petraeus and Crocker admit that Al Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is the greater terrorist threat, if our real concern is that whole war-on-terrorists thing.
Finally, McCain is wrong. Sadly, war is often easier. Staying in Iraq is much easier, certainly for almost every neocon and member of the Bush administration, and apparently for McCain as well. Bush in particular doesn't even suffer the personal torment that Lyndon Johnson did over Vietnam when he similarly refused to withdraw American troops. The hawks still aren't willing to admit they're wrong. They rarely learn from history or from their own mistakes. There have been smart people of good will who feel we need to stay in Iraq because a withdrawal would make things even worse — as it probably will, in the short term. But given the costs of American lives and resources, given the damage to the American economy and prestige, given the N.I.E. and other assessments indicating staying in Iraq is making us progressively less safe, given the immense cost to Iraqis and their overwhelming belief that we should leave (and the American public agrees), the claim that we should stay the course increasingly rings hollow. By all means, let's make sure translators and other Iraqis who've helped Americans can immigrate if they wish, and reconstruction aid with oversight and without an imperial prerogative is certainly an option. But the "hard realist" view isn't that Iraq is a tough road we need to slog. The realistic view is that it's a quagmire we never needed to enter, and although it may deeply wound the vanity of our warmongers, and sincerely dismay others, we should have started withdrawing long ago. Coming to terms with that, as many of our current stay-the-course proponents never did with Vietnam, is a much, much harder road. It requires a character and wisdom that Bush has never shown in his entire life (apart perhaps from giving up drinking), and apparently McCain shares that lack as well.
The Final Picture
McCain — and Obama and Clinton — should continue to be grilled on their Iraq policies, especially given this week’s testimony from Petraeus and Crocker. But McCain presents an entirely different view of reality, one that’s very much in line with that of the Bush administration. Crooks and Liars alone has provided a bevy of troubling pieces. John Kerry recently detailed some of McCain’s more glaring errors on Iraq. McCain apparently mistakenly suggested Al Qaeda was Shiite yet again. Lieberman, in one of his classic “everyone I don’t like is working together” assertions, ludicrously linked Al Qaeda and Iran yet again. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) pointed out to Crocker what we’ve noted before: Reconstruction billions haven’t made everyday Iraqi life much better in five years, and in some cases, have actually made them worse. As linked above, both Petraeus and Crocker have acknowledged Al Qaeda in Pakistan is a greater threat than any forces in Iraq. Meanwhile, Steve Benen fact-checks a “victory lap” op-ed by McCain pals Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, and Keith Olbermann dissects the latest propaganda with retired general William Odom. Bush and some of his most rabid cheerleaders have set an awfully low bar for “straight talk,” but while Petraeus, Crocker, and McCain occasionally touch on the truth, they have not candidly presented the harsh problems of Iraq, and it’s highly unlikely their policies can solve them.
Update 4/10/08: Thanks for the linkage, Steve Audio (who has the NYT video posted), Skippy, Zen Comix, Pale Rider at Blue Girl in a Red State, and anyone else I’ve missed. You’re far too kind. I have a (much shorter) follow-up post here.
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)