Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Soloist

One of the more remarkable stories I've heard recently comes from a Fresh Air interview with Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez. It's about Lopez and the relationship that developed between him and a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez was struck by the beauty of Ayers' playing, and was further amazed to discover Ayers was playing with only two strings on his violin. Next he found out that Ayers had been studying at Julliard, but had to drop out due to the onset of schizophrenia.

Lopez wrote about Ayers in a series of columns, and now has a new book out, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. The NPR link above features an excerpt, and the interview is just under 40 minutes long. It's riveting.

The Los Angeles Times has an article on the movie currently being finished that's based on this story (it's slotted for a November, Oscar season release). Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey seem well cast, but I'm a bit wary about Joe Wright (Atonement) as the director. We'll see. I'm pulling for it, and really hope it doesn't suck. There aren't many major studio films that depict the homeless, certainly not accurately, and the same goes for mental illness.

Regardless, give the interview a listen. I'd love to see the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities receive at least, oh, a few billion in funding. But Lopez and Ayers ' story explores a great deal about the importance of human connection and kindness, and the absolutely vital role that art (or more broadly, creativity) can play in sustaining us.

Since I've been riffing on Shakespeare recently, let me close with:

Where should this music be? i' the
air or the earth?
It sounds no more; and sure it waits upon
Some god o' th' island. Sitting on a bank
Weeping against the king my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air; thence I have follow'd it —
Or it hath drawn me rather — but 'tis gone.
No, it begins again

The Tempest, 1.2, 447-455.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Carnival of the Liberals #63

Welcome to the sixty-third installment of Carnival of the Liberals! I didn't receive many submissions on the theme of "human rights," but far be it for me to stifle anyone's creativity, and several posts did touch on a more general "respect for human beings" theme. Apologies for not including every submission I received.

In "Truth Wins Out Trumps Love Won Out," Buffy at the Gaytheist Agenda provides a thorough account of a panel on LGBT issues and the “Ex-Gay” industry (the folks who claim to "cure" homosexuality). A sample:

Wayne commented that Robert’s story was typical of Ex-Gay Survivors. He then summarized the experience of being an Ex-Gay stating, “How can we be anything when we spend all of our time trying not to be something?”

Greta Christina ponders the roles of nature and nurture in sexuality in "Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines," but points out that it doesn't matter when it comes to respect for LGBT persons: "We deserve rights and recognition because we are human beings and citizens: as much as racial minorities, whose skin color is inborn, and as much as religious minorities, whose religion or lack thereof is learned."

In "So right it's wrong," Zeno of Halfway There battles with right-wing spam-mail forwarded to him by conservative family members, with the "racism & sexism included for free!"

Understand Media Blog wonders whether there's a glass ceiling for women in presidential politics.

Meanwhile, in "America Haters for America," Doctor Biobrain tackles the curious conservative mindset toward love for one's country and one's fellow Americans.

Further afield, Divided We Stand United We Fall explains how "George W. Bush Made Moqtada al-Sadr." (For more on this subject, I'll pass on "The Mess," by Peter W. Galbraith in 2006, and the more recent "Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq" by Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar.)

In "Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You… God’s Propaganda Film," Jeffrey Stingerstein at Disillusioned Words provides a comprehensive roundup of videos on Ben Stein and his movie on "Intelligent Design," Expelled. (For further reading on this, I'll pass on the site Expelled Exposed, the Google-bomb campaign for it, and the scathing New York Times review: "One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time… a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.")

Moving on to international human rights, Shan-ul-Hai of Globally Rational asks, if you were an employer, "Would you hire Beijing?" China's human rights record remains far worse than that of other Olympic host contenders.

In "No air time for torture admission," the Ridger at The Greenbelt wonders why, astonishingly enough, the press hasn't covered Bush's "boasts about approving the use of torture."

Perhaps the press simply agrees with Huck Finn at Putin for President's satiric take: Bush thought he was authorizing wakeboarding, an extreme water sport, instead of waterboarding, an extremely notorious torture technique made infamous by the Spanish Inquisition. (Or there's Tom Tomorrow's take.)

Barry Leiba of Staring at Empty Pages gives us the latest evidence that torture advocate "Antonin Scalia is very scary," based on Scalia's apparent zeal for 18th Century standards of punishment.

Finally, riffing on Hannah Arendt, Montag at Stump Lane argues in "The Banality of Having to Draw Lines Between the Thinkable and the Unthinkable" that torture as an official policy is just insane. As Montag observes:

What vexes me most about this is how this post 9-11 dystopian surveillance and security apparatus jibes with the political ideal of self sufficiency. The right puts a lot of stock in personal responsibility, and objections to the Nanny State; but seem to place an astonishing amount of faith in the increasingly brazen, unfettered exercise of power by the Daddy State to keep them safe from evil.

This touches on the notion that an Orwellian "Daddy State" (or fraternal "Big Brother" state) is evil by its very nature, or can easily become so. I'll add that torture can be opposed on the grounds that 1) it's immoral 2) it's illegal 3) it makes us less safe, and 4) it doesn't work, not reliably — assuming one want the truth versus a confession, that is.

For those wanting more on human rights, torture, due process and related issues, Dan Froomkin keeps a keen eye out at White House Watch, with a prime example being his Monday column, "Duped About Torture." No Comment by Scott Horton and Balkinization also cover these issues extensively and add legal expertise. On the international front, there's Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. Finally, at Blue Herald and here at VS, we've tried to do our small part. Feel free to pass on any other sites or posts in the comments.

Carnival of the Liberals #64 is being hosted by Brave Sir Robin at Sir Robin Runs Away. He describes the broad theme of COTL #64 thusly:

Thinking Liberally, Thinking Positively!

I don’t want anything about the primary race, I don’t want any “things are so screwed up rants” As a proud, unabashedly liberal citizen, I get enough of what we’re against, I say – What are we for? I will take submissions on any topic other than the Primary election, but I’m looking for positive submissions. What can Liberalism provide? What can we do better than the failed system of Corporate Harlotry that we have been living under since 1980? Why should anyone be a Liberal? Let’s tell the world on May 7th. Get those submissions in!!

(Shakespeare's birthday is also celebrated today, as Brave Sir Robin reminds us. There's an interesting essay on Shakespeare and the tradition of holiday festivals, including "Carnival," here. Ha! Try that for a tie-in!)

The blogcarnival.com form is the best way to submit for COTL #64. Brave Sir Robin's requested a Monday, May 5, submission deadline. Let's make his job tough — not in the "too few submissions" sense of tough, but in a "By Thor's Hammer, how can I possibly choose from all these great posts?!?" sense of tough. Thanks!

National Poetry Month and Shakespeare’s Birthday

Shakespeare’s birthday is generally celebrated on April 23rd, the same day he died. It’s a good excuse for me to celebrate National Poetry Month. Let me praise once again the wonderful Favorite Poem Project and highlight the poetry sites listed near the bottom of my blogroll (Poetry Daily is a nice way to discover new poets). My previous posts for National Poetry Month are far more extensive, and the foolhardy can access them through the too scant poetry category. Meanwhile, if you’re of such a mind, ”Knaves of the Bush Administration” considers current politics in terms of Shakespeare.

But let’s move on to some sonnets, shall we? And remember Robert Pinksy’s reminder: read poetry aloud. We’ll kick it off with…


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

—William Shakespeare

This early sonnet is very pretty, with a famous first line. Still, while it’s a lovely piece of poetry, I much prefer the more unexpected approach of…


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

—William Shakespeare

This, to me, speaks of true love versus besotted teen puppy love. This is a mature love, one that recognizes reality over illusion, but also celebrates that reality. It’s one of my favorite poems. Another favorite is this one:


They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

—William Shakespeare

There are some poems that just speak to you immediately, or their music grabs you even if you can’t articulate what it’s “about,” per se. This is not one of those poems, or at least was not for me. It's easy enough to "get" Sonnet 130 on a first read, but Sonnet 94 is more like a Zen koan, a piece one studies that then unfolds beautifully, offering a keen insight with a sharp punch.

I first studied this sonnet in high school with a great teacher, who told us it inspired at least two other fairly famous poems we then studied as well. Sonnet 94 is considered very difficult, and it really does require at least a second read if not several more. (I once read a shockingly counter-textual analysis of it by a critic in a collection of essays that made me put aside the book.) I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so before I make any more comments, I’d recommend reading this one over a few times first.

The key for me lies in pondering the last two lines, the turn, and then reading through the rest of poem again with those lines in mind. Read through the third quatrain, starting with “The summer’s flower…” in relation to the last two lines. After setting us up, Shakespeare takes us in a radically different direction with the flower-weed metaphor, and I’d suggest here is where he’s most direct in his judgment, poetic though the expression is. After getting a basic handle on those last six lines and what he's saying, I’d read through the poem yet again. The second quatrain, starting with “They rightly do inherit…” is scathingly sarcastic, I would suggest, a tone that’s virtually impossible to pick up on in a first read. But read through the poem aloud with that in mind, with that tone, and the entire sonnet makes much more sense. I had a college professor, the poet-in-residence, who felt the second line with its three “do”s sort of deconstructed itself. What the hell does Shakespeare mean with that line? It’s as if he’s trying to throw us, jar us. Do read the sonnet through again, love the words, caress them, sound them out: “unmovèd,” “cold,” infection,” “fester,” and the tone becomes more apparent. That dagger of a last line, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” suddenly resounds off of what may be my favorite line of the piece, that “They are the lords and owners of their faces.” It’s a dark, dazzling poem.

(Actually, the execrable performances of George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson during the recent ABC debate made me think of this of sonnet, which I’d say nicely applies to much of our shallow press and others in positions of power. Subject for another blog post, perhaps, and how we poor, dumb bloggers and citizens who dare care about policy and substance are “but stewards of their excellence.” But George Stephanopoulos has insisted they performed an admirable service to the nation that night, and George is an honourable man — so are they all, honourable men and women.)

I’m happy to discuss the poem further — or anyone’s favorite — but I’m always wary of killing the joy and magic, as Billy Collins describes Bad analysis can be counter-textual, counter-intuitive or just silly, but I also think analysis that kills the joy is bad analysis by definition, while good analysis is that which enriches our appreciation or understanding. Hamlet hits on part of this when he exclaims in protest, “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” [3.2, 365-6] But then, Shakespeare was one sharp cat.

The danger and beauty of Shakespeare is that oftentimes, any analysis or criticism tells us more about the gazer than Shakespeare’s work itself. One of the signs of his greatness (not that all his work was great, as I suspect he himself would admit) is that it can bear such exhaustive scrutiny. Personally, I’m more enamored of Shakespeare the playwright than Shakespeare the poet, but he did write some remarkable poems. In any case, in the spirit of the Favorite Poem Project, my reasons for loving Sonnet 130 should be apparent, and I love Sonnet 94 because it captures a certain social dynamic and eviscerates it in sly fashion. I have to give serious style points to each piece on both content and form. But that’s enough from me. Please feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments, and if you’d like to, mention why you like it. Cheers.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 4/17/08

Goldfrapp — "A & E"

An offbeat video for their new album. They seem to enjoy lyrics that really contrast their tunes. Here's their Wiki page and (pretty cool) website.

Eclectic Jukebox

A New Wrinkle on an Old Story

Citizen Carrie at Brilliant at Breakfast has an extensive post on H-1B visas called ”The Never-Ending Post, or, Government and Business Leaders Work 24/7 To Keep Americans Away From High Tech Jobs.” Here’s a sample:

As reported earlier, Microsoft's Bill Gates testified in front of Congress on March 12, 2008 by reading off his list of demands for the high tech industry. The crux of his speech is that he claims that we are not graduating enough students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills, and businesses are forced to hire workers from overseas to fill all of the job openings. (And, oh, by the way, the tech industry can pay these foreign workers less money.)

From near the end of the post:

Finally, on April 1, 2008 (what a busy day!), Senators Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to the top 25 companies who received approvals for H-1B (specialty workers) and L-1 (intra-company) visas for 2007, asking for detailed information on how the visas are being used. The purpose of the letter is to determine if "....these programs, as currently structured, are facilitating the outsourcing of American jobs."

The letter is five pages long and asks 11 questions, with each question subdivided into multiple parts. Here are sample questions (#7, page 3):

• For each of the last five fiscal years, how many employees have you terminated outside of the United States?

• For each of the last five fiscal years, how many employees have you terminated inside of the United States?

• How many of these employees were U.S. citizens?

• Did H-1B visa holders replace or take over the job responsibilities of any of these terminated employees?

• Would you support legislation prohibiting all employers from displacing an American worker with a H-1B visa holder? Please explain.

I'm not sure how large a problem this is, and would like to see honest responses to Durbin and Grassley's letter.

I’ll also recommend for the umpteenth time this installment from a New York Times Pulitzer-winning series on race from 2000, ”At a Slaughterhouse, 
Some Things Never Die,” by Charles LeDuff.

Both stories center a great deal on foreign workers in the United States. In Carrie’s post, it ‘s foreign workers with Ph.Ds and H-1B visas. In the NYT piece, it’s mostly Mexican illegal immigrants doing tough, dangerous manual labor in a slaughterhouse. Both sets of foreign workers are just looking for jobs, and I think it’s very important to avoid backlash against them. They’re not the issue. At issue is the companies involved. The specifics differ, but it sure seems like a very old story of exploitation. The H-1B visa holders will work for less, especially if they’re worried they’ll be kicked out of the country. Similarly, the slaughterhouse uses illegal immigrants in large part because they’re afraid to unionize. The United States is an immigrant nation, but currently immigrating legally or becoming naturalized can be a long and difficult process. That needs reform. Meanwhile, in their pursuit of cheaper labor, these companies are taking actions with potentially adverse consequences to the country as a whole. The extent and nature of that damage may be debated, but given the realities of global economies these days (and that the richest 2% in the world own half the world’s wealth), it's a subject that bears investigating.

As I commented over at the post, what's especially interesting here is that during the Cold War, the U.S. used to subsidize science scholarships and the like, the better to produce Americans who could help defeat those dangerous Ruskies and all. Now, the dangers of competing with foreign nations in terms of economics and innovation is the far greater issue, but hmm, the solution is strikingly different. It's the clever marketing of a novel form of an old story of exploitation. It also fits in with a larger picture of large corporations, domestic and multinational, as feudal entities with little to no allegiance to their home country (or countries). If you read David Cay Johnston's latest book, Free Lunch, taxpayer money is actually going to subsidize large companies going into smaller towns and crushing smaller, local (and previously successful) businesses. That's a really "free market," huh? Ask not what this company can do for the American people… ask how American taxpayers can help out this company.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Call for Submissions, COTL — "Human Rights"

This is a reminder that I'll be hosting Carnival of the Liberals #63 here at Vagabond Scholar on April 23rd. I'm happy to read all submissions, but I'd like to concentrate on "Human Rights" posts, which can cover torture, due process, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or any of a number of related subjects. Given the recent release of the 2003 Yoo torture memo, Philippe Sands' new book Torture Team, the upcoming Guantanamo trials, the stances of our presidential candidates, and situations around the world, there's plenty of angles to take on material that unfortunately needs far more attention than it's receiving.

The blogcarnival.com form is the best way to submit.

I'm asking for a Monday, 4/21 submission deadline. Again, posts related in some way to human rights are preferred, but I'm happy to read all submissions — which are currently thin in numbers. Thanks!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Right-Wing Cartoon Watch #29 (2/1/08 — 4/6/08)

The 29th, long-delayed, super-sized installment of RWCW, covering nine weeks, is finally here, with conservatives overwhelmingly focusing on the Democratic presidential race. If all the scandals, real, manufactured, underreported and overblown are already slipping from your memory, never fear! We're here to, um, help.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vote for Your Favorite Female Blogger

Via Digby, today's the last day to vote for your favorite female blogger out of the ten listed. There are many other great female bloggers, of course, but they have to cut the list off somewhere, and it's a nice way to honor some very good work or maybe discover a new blogger.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eclectic Jukebox 4/10/08

Sam Cooke — "A Change Is Gonna Come"

With all the great posts and discussions on Martin Luther King over the past two weeks (many of them heartbreaking), this song has been running through my head, and this fan video about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement is very well done. It's remarkable that MLK was only 39.

Cheap sentiment doesn't get me weepy. This does. It's one of the most soulful, moving vocals I can think of.

I think the only hope for the human race is in giving a damn about people who aren't us. Arlo Guthrie once said that we should push for loving one another, but settle for peace. That's not a bad sentiment, and probably a wise strategy, but I do feel the key to the most lasting, positive change lies in pushing for, developing, and showing compassion. There's a radical idea whose time has always come.

Eclectic Jukebox

More on “100 Years”

To update my recent (ridiculously long) post on John McCain, the pieces on “100 years” just keep coming — or I keep finding them. In this round, here’s Dave Tiffany (the NH questioner), Hendrik Hertzberg, Josh Marshall, DDay #1, DDay #2, Somerby #1, Somerby #2, and Somerby #3 on “100 years.” Feel free to pass on any other key posts I’ve missed.

I would hope at this point my take is fairly clear, and apologies for going self-referential here. On the style front, I won’t claim rhetorical purity in my previous post; I don’t have a problem with tweaking McCain or others where I think they’ve been disingenuous, but readers may disagree with my assessments on that score, and the real point is to critique McCain and the rest on substance, which I hope I’ve achieved. Ultimately, how important is it if McCain’s sincere or not if he’s also wrong? I think I’ve provided a pretty complete picture of John McCain’s rhetoric on Iraq, his grasp (or lack thereof) of the situation there, and his policies.

In this latest round, Somerby makes a number of good points. As he writes in reaction to his e-mail, “We were mainly struck by the number of progressives who think we can beat McCain this year only by making inaccurate statements.” He points to this (very good) Frank Rich op-ed on this whole mess as a model of how to proceed.

I do think there’s some serious cross-talking going on here. While McCain’s been taken out of context by Democrats, and it’s inaccurate to say he actually proposed “100 years of war” or “endless war,” it is accurate to say that under McCain there will be no end to the war, at least no time soon, and he has no exit strategy. There’s a distinction between those two positions, but they really aren’t miles apart, certainly not in terms of their practical consequences. McCain isn’t a comic book super-villain, gleefully surveying the battlefield and salivating over the prospect of death and destruction. He’s a mistaken man (I’d add obstinate and occasionally immature) whose policies would likely continue the current rate of death and destruction. McCain’s Iraq policy is virtually identical to Bush’s — it’s stay the course, an “open-ended commitment.” Frank Rich makes a similar point when he writes:

The sum total of [McCain’s] public record suggests that he could well prolong the war for another century — not because he’s the crazed militarist portrayed by Democrats, but through sheer inertia, bad judgment and blundering.

Whatever McCain’s process for arriving at his positions, whether from sincerity, calculation, insight, obtuseness, stubbornness or a sense of duty, however base or noble his intentions, he remains wrong. I’m starting to think of McCain and his “100 years” comments in terms of 3 Ds: His remarks were a Dodge, his portrayals of Iraq are Delusional, and his policies (continuing Bush’s) would be just as Disastrous. But the last two are much more important.

John McCain talks about the costs of staying in Iraq, and being honest about those costs with the American people. All right. If McCain were elected president, perhaps Congress would develop a spine and cut off funding, or McCain would actually withdraw troops due to some miraculous change in Iraq or a change of his mind. But currently, staying in Iraq costs us roughly 12 billion per month. Four more years would amount to roughly 576 billion, on top of the tab Bush will leave when he finally departs office (after running out the clock on the hellish situation he’s created). At the current rate, several thousand more American troops would die in those four years, and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. I suspect the total American cost could be greater still, in terms of our economy, the strain on our military, veteran care, and international trade and prestige (not to mention greater enmity in the Middle East). Are all those costs that we’re willing to pay? And is McCain honestly discussing them? He claims the national security cost of us leaving Iraq is far greater, but I hope I’ve refuted that pretty thoroughly. I also have a new post on the Petraeus-Crocker testimony that tackles similar issues.

Somerby’s admonitions about accuracy are well-taken, as well as his political advice in the first piece linked above:

When you misstate about McCain, the mainstream press will fact-check you. You run the risk of making him into a martyr, as happened with Bush in 2004.

Yup. So why not critique McCain instead on his genuinely horrible policies? Let me return to Rich, who ends his piece by writing:

“We’re succeeding,” Mr. McCain said after his last trip to Iraq. “I don’t care what anybody says.” Again, it’s the last sentence that’s accurate. When General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify before Congress again this week — against the backdrop of a million-Iraqi, anti-American protest called by Mr. Sadr — Mr. McCain will ram home all this “success” no matter the facts.

The difference between the Democrats and Mr. McCain going forward is clear enough: They want to find a way out of the morass, however provisional and imperfect, and he equates staying the disastrous course with patriotism. Mr. McCain’s doomed promise of military “victory” in Iraq is akin to Wile E. Coyote’s perpetual pursuit of the Road Runner, with much higher carnage. This isn’t patriotism. As the old saying goes, doing the same thing over and over again and hoping you’ll get a different result is the definition of insanity.

The Democrats should also stop repeating their 100-years-war calumny against Mr. McCain. There’s too much at stake for America for them to add their own petty distortions to an epic tragedy that only a long-overdue national reckoning with hard truths can bring to an end.

Prettier and pithier than I. I’m happy to move beyond the “100 years” remarks, as I tried to do in my earlier post, since John McCain’s been misquoted. But he’s also dangerously wrong. That’s the point that needs to be hammered home relentlessly. Let’s get to it, and work to make the media tell the full, accurate story of McCain’s horrible policies, on Iraq and virtually every other issue.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Still Looking for a Pony in Iraq

("Ya sure Saddan didn't leave a stockpile of ponies somewhere?")

Assessments of the Petraeus-Crocker testimony range from the depressingly stark to the maddeningly obtuse. Here's a few. We'll start with Howard Kurtz's lede:

Was there anything that happened at the Petraeus hearings that wasn't entirely predictable?

The general said progress had been made in Iraq, but not enough, and refused to estimate when more troops might be able to be withdrawn.

Democrats were generally skeptical.

Republicans were generally supportive.

Everyone praised the troops.

Some protesters were removed from the room.

Retired generals hit the airwaves.

Joe Biden talked for a long time.

CNN and Fox cut away, but went back to the hearings when Hillary Clinton and, later, Barack Obama got to ask questions.

The ball does not seem to have moved.

That's not bad, although I'll note that back in November Kurtz offered a unduly rosy, highly selective view of Iraq.

Next there's the Washington Post Editorial Board's op-ed. Remember that they supported the invasion and have often been cheerleaders for it, even if they've occasionally criticized the Bush administration's incompetence. It's short enough and characteristic enough of their faction I might as well quote it in full:

Iraq Report Redux
The facts there have changed; the debate here, less so.

WHEN GEN. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker last testified before Congress in September, the military results of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, though significant, were still so preliminary that much of the debate centered on whether they were real. When the two men appeared again yesterday, the reduction of violence had been so great as to be undeniable. Sen. Barack Obama, who predicted that the surge would not slow the bloodshed, was among the Democrats who acknowledged yesterday that it had. Similarly, seven months ago, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker were hard-pressed to cite any movement by Iraqi leaders toward the political accords the surge was supposed to facilitate; the best Mr. Crocker could do was to say he had seen "seeds of reconciliation." Yesterday he was able to tick off a series of significant steps, including agreement on provincial elections that could transform Iraq's political landscape.

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker have gotten more confident about calling the surge a success, and rightly so. "It's worth it," said the general. "We have seen a significant degradation of al-Qaeda's presence and its abilities," said the ambassador. "Al-Qaeda is our mortal and strategic enemy. So to the extent that al-Qaeda's capacities have been lessened in Iraq -- and they have been significantly lessened -- I do believe that makes America safer."

What hasn't much changed is the partisan debate over Iraq, which as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) lamented, remains resistant even to established facts. Republicans tended to follow Sen. John McCain yesterday in arguing that "success is within reach" and that American goals can be achieved "perhaps sooner than many imagine." Democrats, including presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama, remain locked within the "this war is lost" prism the party adopted a year ago. Yesterday Ms. Clinton, Mr. Obama and others chose to focus on the costs of the war -- whether Iraq was spending too little of its own money, and whether U.S. resources would be better dedicated to Afghanistan. Those are fair questions, but they are far different from Ms. Clinton's argument last September that accepting that the surge had made progress "would require a willing suspension of disbelief."

What also hasn't changed is the sobering but firm bottom line the two envoys offer -- one that neither party wants to hear. While "progress is real," as Mr. Crocker put it, it is also "fragile" and "reversible," as Gen. Petraeus said. That's why Gen. Petraeus is recommending -- correctly, in our view -- that troop withdrawals be suspended after the five surge brigades are withdrawn and that further reductions be based on conditions in Iraq.

Contrary to Mr. McCain's suggestion, success will require a prolonged commitment, and even then it will not be guaranteed. But the general and the ambassador both argued that such a commitment is justified. Even with all the travails of the past five years, "Iraqis, Americans and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened," said Mr. Crocker. And an early or unconditional withdrawal would, as he noted, invite disaster "with devastating consequences for the region and the world."

As we've covered many times before, any reduction in violence is good. However, as Bush himself said, the point of escalation, or "surge," was to buy time for political reconciliation between warring Iraqi factions. That hasn't happened, and the recent Basra confrontations between Maliki's forces and Sadr's have if anything made things more heated. Petraeus himself has acknowledged that no military plan can achieve that political reconciliation. While there may be political progress in some areas of Iraq, just read over the past few BH and VS posts on Iraq. It's not a pretty picture. "Seeds of reconciliation" aren't enough. Perhaps there will be progress, but it’s been five years, and via the current policy, the hypothetical future positive situation they're pitching remains a slim chance most likely years away. I'd also argue, as has retired General William Odom and many others, that our presence in Iraq is one of the chief causes of strife. Petraeus and Crocker portray Iraq in far rosier terms than is warranted, not that it should it be surprising that they have.

Al Qaeda is simply not the major threat in Iraq, as we covered at greater length in the recent John McCain post. As Joe Biden recently pressed Crocker to admit, Al Qaeda in Pakistan is a far greater threat than Al Qaeda in Iraq, and as DDay points out, this effectively "obliterate[s] every administration argument about Iraq." Digby passes on Dana Goldstein's sage observation that Petraeus and Crocker at times deliberately confused Al Qaeda in Iraq with Bin Laden's Al Qaeda. I'll also link once again Gary Kamiya's piece debunking the latest round of administration bullshit on Iran.

Fred Hiatt and the rest of the WaPo Editorial Board are certainly welcome to their opinion, but they happen to be wrong. They're also being disingenuous, or else are making a severe cognitive error. It's no coincidence that they're using the same argument we've debunked countless times in the Right-Wing Cartoon Watch series. No one's actually saying that no progress has been made in Iraq. The question is whether it's meaningful, significant progress, and more pointedly, whether it's the crucial progress needed. The Bush administration's standards for "progress" are just far too low. Any decrease in violence is certainly good (although the violence remains higher than they acknowledge). However, a decrease in violence was not the ultimate goal of the surge. A decrease in violence is a necessary but not sufficient factor for success, which again would be political reconciliation between warring factions. Saying "the surge" has not worked at all would be false. But trying to claim that because it's worked to some degree it's been a "success" is complete bullshit. Trying to claim that Obama and Clinton are ignoring the "success" of the surge because they're pointing out that Bush's own standards have not been met is also intellectually dishonest bullshit. Let's also not forget that a key factor to the decrease in violence — besides our massive bribing of Sunni militias, that is — was Sadr's decision to initiate a ceasefire. If one thing should be clear after the past two weeks, it's that Sadr has and will continue to determine the "success" of the Bush administration's policies to a far greater degree than they acknowledge or would like.

Mike's Blog Roundup passes on a great piece in The Nation by John Nichols rightly praising Russ Feingold's questions to Petraeus and Crocker. (QuestionGirl has the video of Biden and Feingold's segments here.) As I've said more times than I can remember, the Bush administration and its allies — and that would include Petraeus, Crocker, Fred Hiatt and the gang and Fred Kagan and his ilk — rarely if ever address the true complexities of Iraq or its harsh realties.

It's no surprise that the surge proponents rarely if ever talk about the 4-5 million displaced Iraqis, or the staggering Iraqi body count over the years, or the fact that basic utilities in Iraq overall haven't gotten much better in five years and in some cases have gotten worse. They don't mention that:

* 73 percent [of Iraqis] -- including 95 percent of Sunnis -- oppose the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

* 61 percent say the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse, rather than better.

* 42 percent think attacks on U.S. forces are acceptable.

* 46 percent think if American forces left, the security situation would be better, compared to 29 percent who say it would be worse.

Even offered a slew of fantasy options -- for instance, that U.S. forces should stay "until security is restored" or "until the Iraqi government is stronger" -- a plurality (38 percent) still said what they want is for U.S. forces to leave immediately.

No assessment of Iraq that does not address these realities, and address them head on without prodding and without dissembling, is truly "serious." Since the surge started, some Iraqis have actually returned to their homes, still others have fled, but it's laughable to say that the humanitarian crisis of those displaced Iraqis has been solved by the surge. And if the surge hasn't solved that, made significant inroads on it, or was never meant to address that problem, then it was never a serious solution in the first place. Read over those Iraq posts, or any good newspaper. Read over any of the number of good books on the Iraq war or catch a few episodes of Frontline to realize what a Charlie Foxtrot this has always been and how deep a hole the Bush administration dug in the first place.

The truth is that "the surge" was always primarily a domestic political strategy to move the goalposts to benefit the Bush administration and those who back their policies here in the United States. It's the social norm in the Beltway to say that surge proponents are serious while its opponents are not (as Glenn Greenwald's documented countless times), but that's merely a sign that stupidity is a social norm in Washington on a vital issue (honestly, on many vital issues). There are many reasons Kagan and his ilk aren't truly "serious," but let's go to that glaring example again — anyone who doesn't talk about the 4-5 million displaced Iraqis, and doesn't do so voluntarily and forthrightly, is not truly serious on Iraq. As I've written before, much of the dynamic we're witnessing is due to vanity. Many war proponents are still insisting they were right, and they're desperate to be vindicated. That vindication depends not only on being right, but on having been right. The success of the Bush-Petraeus-McCain plan is the only way of achieving that, so they will flog it 'til their deaths, whether through disingenuous calculation or sincere cognitive dissonance. Either way, they're still wrong, most of them would do it all again, some of them are trying to do it again with Iran, and people will continue to die and suffer because of their un-evolving, unfailingly disastrous judgment.

This brings me to the more incisive analysis of Dan Froomkin, who yesterday lead off his column with:

No Exit

Well, it's official. Getting out of Iraq is now exclusively the next president's problem.

That's the only serious conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday's Senate testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The two standard-bearers for President Bush's war engaged in an absurd tap-dance that nevertheless made it clear that U.S. troops aren't going anywhere anytime soon.


While asserting that "the way forward on reduction should be conditions-based," Petraeus and Crocker were unable or unwilling to say what those conditions might be.

While insisting that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended, they described no circumstance in which it would end.

They refused to consider any hypothetical scenarios, except for their own.

They refused to acknowledge that reasonable people might disagree with them.

And, as they demonstrated yesterday and in their testimony last September, no matter what the situation on the ground, they are able to use it as an argument for staying the course.

A few key exchanges tell the story…

As always, Froomkin should be read in full. But here's one section that leapt out at me (emphasis mine):

And here's one with Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh:

Bayh: "And I would just ask you the question, isn't it true that a fair amount of humility is in order in rendering judgments about the way forward in Iraq, that no one can speak with great confidence about what is likely to occur? Is that a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "It is very fair, Senator, and it's why I repeatedly noted that we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."

Bayh: "In fact, reasonable people can differ about the most effective way forward. Is that not also a fair observation?"

Petraeus: "I don't know whether I would go that far, sir . . . "

Bayh: "General, you would not -- you would not mean to say that anyone who would have a different opinion is, by definition, an unreasonable person?"

Petraeus: "Senator, lots of things in life are arguable. And, certainly, there are lots of different opinions out there. But, again, if you -- I believe that the recommendations that I have made are correct."

It's all highly reminiscent of the argument Bush made in the run-up to the war, when he insisted that Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to disclose his weapons of mass destruction meant that he had them. Then, as now, Bush bent logic to justify what he wanted to do anyway.

This time around, at least, there's a bit of pushback.

There is, but I wish it was much, much stronger. But wow. Petraeus actually asserts that no reasonable person can disagree with him — nor, effectively, with Bush, McCain, Lieberman, and the rest of the gang. That's really astounding.

Meanwhile, as Joe Biden pointed out to Petraeus and Crocker, the Bush administration has no right to make any treaties without Congressional approval, especially not a long-term commitment in Iraq binding the next president. It's a subject Jonathan Schwarz dissects superbly here. Use other terms if you like, but I'd say Petraeus and Crocker demonstrate the same arrogance and assertion of unbridled, unaccountable executive power that so strongly defines the Bush administration. Nor is this an accident.

Many of the dynamics of the Petraeus-Crocker show are familiar. Via an earlier Froomkin column, here's the WaPo's Michael Abramowitz (emphasis mine):

During an 80-minute session, the president questioned his top commander in Iraq on whether further troop reductions, beyond those planned through July, would compromise security gains. According to officials familiar with the exchange, Petraeus said he wanted to wait until the summer to evaluate conditions -- and Bush made it clear he would support him and take any political heat.

"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush said before television cameras later, with Petraeus standing by his side. "I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "

In the waning months of his administration, Bush has hitched his fortunes to those of his bookish four-star general, bypassing several levels of the military chain of command to give Petraeus a privileged voice in White House deliberations over Iraq, according to current and former administration officials and retired officers. . . .

Bush's reliance on Petraeus has made other military officials uneasy, has rankled congressional Democrats and has created friction that helped spur the departure last month of Adm. William J. 'Fox' Fallon, who, while Petraeus's boss as chief of U.S. Central Command, found his voice eclipsed on Iraq. . . .

'It is part of Bush's overall management style -- to cede responsibility to a lower level and not look carefully at critical issues himself,' said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan-era official who has parted company with such longtime friends as Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney over the war. 'Originally on Iraq, it was whatever Rumsfeld wanted. Then it was whatever Jerry Bremer did,' he said, referring to the former Coalition Provisional Authority chief. 'And now it is whatever Petraeus wants.'

Robert Scheer puts it even more sharply, as Froomkin noted yesterday:

Robert Scheer, writing in his syndicated opinion column, recalls the controversial " General Betray Us" ads run by Moveon.org last year: "By undercutting the widespread support for getting out of Iraq, Petraeus did indeed betray the American public, siding with an enormously unpopular president who wants to stay the course in Iraq for personal and political reasons that run contrary to genuine national security interests. Once again, the president is passing the buck to the uniformed military to justify continuing a ludicrous imperial adventure, and the good general has dutifully performed."

It's my personal reaction, but it's hard for me to express how much this dismays me. Bush's abdication of responsibility, a hallmark of his entire presidency, strikes me as utterly unconscionable and unforgivable. And Petraeus' loyalty should be to the United States, not to Bush. There are those who will argue it is, but there's a strong case that either it isn't, or Petraeus is just wrong on Iraq and selling an overly optimistic picture — even if one factors in all of his dire warnings and caveats.

I want to close with a very important piece from Jonathan Schwarz called "What No One in America Knows." It's a short post that should read in full, but here's some key points (emphasis in original):

There's something missing from this recent AP story:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened Tuesday to lift a seven-month freeze on his Mahdi Army militia if the Iraqi government does not halt attacks on his followers or set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

What's almost unknown in America is that al-Sadr isn't just demanding US withdrawal at the point of a gun. The Iraqis who want us to leave—ie, the great majority—have been trying to make it happen with words and the law for some time. They've followed all the rules of democracy and "won," but...we're still there.

The legal authority for the US presence is the UN mandate. The Iraqi parliament passed a law last summer requiring that they got to approve and set conditions for any extension of the mandate when it expired at the end of 2007…

If the government wants to extend the presence of the multinational forces, it has to come to us in the parliament to convince us first," said the Sunni parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.

Here's what al-Sadr's parliamentary allies said at the time:

Reached today by phone in Baghdad, Nassar al Rubaie, the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq's Council of Representatives, said, "This new binding resolution will prevent the government from renewing the U.N. mandate without the parliament's permission. They'll need to come back to us by the end of the year, and we will definitely refuse to extend the U.N. mandate without conditions." Rubaie added: "There will be no such a thing as a blank check for renewing the U.N. mandate anymore, any renewal will be attached to a timetable for a complete withdrawal."

But in December, 2007 when the mandate was about to expire, Maliki (in his role as Bush's mini-me) told the Iraqi parliament "Suck. On. This." and got it extended to the end of 2008 without any vote. Now, despite the fact that the Iraqi constitution gives the parliament authority to approve all treaties (and the US constitution gives the congress authority to approve all treaties) Bush and Maliki are planning to sign an "agreement" approving a permanent US occupation...without the involvement of either country's legislative branch. Moreover, since Maliki is our puppet, this essentially is the administration agreeing with itself…

The Iraqis who want us to leave, but are willing to work for it non-violently, can honestly ask: what else are we supposed to do? There unfortunately doesn't seem to be an answer.

A piece I also found via Schwarz and linked previously, "Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq" by Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar, makes the point that:

…The sectarian-based street-fighting is a symptom of a larger political conflict, one that has been poorly analyzed in the mainstream press. The real source of conflict in Iraq -- and the reason political reconciliation has been so difficult -- is a fundamental disagreement over what the future of Iraq will look like. Loosely defined, it is a clash of Iraqi nationalists -- with Muqtada al-Sadr as their most influential voice -- who desire a unified Iraqi state and public-sector management of the country's vast oil reserves and who forcefully reject foreign influence on Iraq's political process, be it from the United States, Iran or other outside forces.

They also write that Sadr is actually more popular than Maliki with Iraqis, and this is a threat for Maliki in the upcoming elections, which explains his recent Basra push:

It's a relatively straightforward story: Iraq is ablaze today as a result of an attempt to impose Colombian-style democracy on the unstable country: Maliki's goal, shared by the like-minded allies among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that dominate his administration, and with at least tacit U.S. approval, is to kill off the opposition and then hold a vote.

I can't help but think of America's covert support for a coup (in large part to help British oil interests) in Iran in 1953 to overturn a democratically-elected government we and the British didn't like, and our recent disastrous attempt to do the same in Gaza to overturn a democratically-elected government we didn't like. Maybe (maybe) Sadr is bad for "American interests" (most of all the oil companies), but if he is indeed Iraqis' preferred choice, that certainly makes the situation much different than the Bush administration's depicting, doesn't it? At the very least, there's a much more complex situation in Iraq than what they're selling. And this brings us back to the surge. As I wrote in the McCain post, many experts and most Americans believe the current Bush policy cannot succeed without many more years in Iraq, and most Americans don't see much benefit in trying any longer; they want us out. Meanwhile, since Sadr and the majority of Iraqis (including the Iraqi parliament) want us to leave, resentment over our presence is the biggest threat to American troops and will only grow, there's a very strong case that "progress" cannot possibly be made as long as we're there. We're preventing it.

I don't know about you, but the more I read about Iraq, the more the decision to 'stay the course' there becomes indefensible and withdrawal seems not only to represent mature wisdom, but basic sanity.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

John "100 Years" McCain

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.

Changing Positions

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."

McCain’s Confusion

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

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)