McCain and the War


There is much in his speech to applaud, even while its historical poignancy remains. Unlike many of his fellow Republicans, he has exhibited patriotic candor about the appalling leadership that brought us into this mess. But his presidential ambitions prevent him from naming the truly guilty men: the duplicitous Cheney, the arrogant Rumsfeld, and the glib, clueless Bush. McCain says this:

For the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq and not how we wish them to be.

That is a brutal indictment of a president he eagerly supported for re-election. And yet support him he did with an embrace that only helped sustain the madness of King George (including the right to torture). And that's why the Democrats have a huge advantage going into the next election. They don't have to defend Bush's record, or Bush himself. Painfully, McCain still does. You can see it in this passage in particular:

Whether or not al Qaeda terrorists were a present danger in Iraq before the war, there is no disputing they are there now, and their leaders recognize Iraq as the main battleground in the war on terror. Today, al Qaeda terrorists are the ones preparing the car bombs, firing the Katyusha rockets, planting the IEDs. They maneuver in the midst of Iraq’s sectarian conflict, sparking and fueling the horrendous violence, destroying efforts at political reconciliation, killing innocents on both sides in the hope of creating a conflagration that will cause Americans to lose heart and leave, so they can return to their primary mission planning and executing attacks on the United States, and destabilizing America’s allies.

Look: if this war has actually increased the power of al Qaeda, has helped recruit many more Jihadists to the cause, and has been conducted with the level of incompetence McCain claims, then he really has no credibility in his strategy right now if he doesn't explicitly and clearly run a campaign that offers clear blue sky between his strategy and the Bush legacy. His speech yesterday didn't and couldn't do that if it were to appeal to Republican primary voters. It even contained direct, partisan swipes at Democrats for their current posture. McCain cannot have it both ways. By his own admission, the Democrats have been proved right about this president. The failures in this war are squarely Republican failures. And yet he still plays the partisan card - against those who have been right. Oy.

It is also intellectually sloppy to argue the following:

It is impossible to separate sectarian violence from the war against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is following an explicit strategy to foment civil war in Iraq.

C'mon. They are separate issues. There's no question al Qaeda is exploiting those divisions; but so is Iran. And the social rifts are there anyway, with the vast majority of the insurgency not run by al Qaeda. Then this:

Consider our other strategic challenges in the region: preventing Iran from going nuclear; stabilizing Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban; the battle for the future of Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others; protecting Israel's security; the struggle for Lebanon’s independence. Does any honest observer believe those challenges will be easier to confront and at lesser cost in American blood and treasure if the United States accepts defeat in Iraq?

McCain seems to believe this is a rhetorical question. But surely it isn't. The war in Iraq has crippled our ability to confront Tehran and it has siphoned resources away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al Qaeda is rebuilding unhindered. It is crippling the military, making it less capable of dealing with threats elsewhere. It may be that extricating ourselves from the Iraq disaster is indeed the only way to grapple with the wider problems of the war against us. I'm not saying this is obvious; but it's surely debatable - and the balance of the argument now lies with those seeking to escape the trap we have walked right into. McCain still seems to act as if the trap does not exist - or that it won't tighten the more we seek to impose by force what he concedes force alone cannot impose. If McCain had been president in 2003, this might be a speech to rally behind. But he wasn't and, tragically, it isn't.

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty.)