Iraq and False Choices

“The mask slips,” Andrew writes of this Max Boot post, in which Boot argues that “in order to build on the success that General Petraeus and his soldiers have had, we need to maintain a long-term commitment in Iraq – for 100 years if need be, as John McCain has said.” What mask? Max Boot has never pretended to be anything other than a liberal imperialist, an advocate for the necessity of reshaping the American military dramatically to prepare us for a long series of “savage of wars of peace.” The real question is whether Boot’s neo-imperialist posture and the current left-of-center position on Iraq – the surge has succeeded, therefore we need to leave just as quickly as if it had failed – are the the only positions available as we debate the Iraq question in this election. Andrew thinks so, writing that Boot “helps us realize that this election is indeed at root a decision on whether to keep troops in Iraq for the next century or more.” But this strikes me as an overstatement: There are no decisions that John McCain can undertake, up to and including basing decisions, that a future administration can’t reverse as the facts on the ground change, and there’s no reason why McCain’s plan to gradually reduce our numbers in Iraq over the next four years can’t serve as a prelude to a minimal American presence in that country throughout the 2010s, with a complete pullout a possibility as a conditions on the ground (and the wishes of the Iraqi government) permit.

Andrew goes on:

This obviously isn’t about Iraq, as we are fast discovering. It’s about an ever greater American entanglement in the Middle East in part to secure oil supplies we need to wean ourselves off and in part a foolish attempt to protect Israel.

Well, maybe. There are certainly people for whom the debate over troop levels in Iraq is ultimately about whether American foreign policy gets set on a more explicitly imperialist trajectory, and there’s no question that such voices will be more empowered under a McCain Administration than by a President Obama. The question is whether the likely practical results of a McCain Presidency – a Presidency that will be constrained by all kinds of factors, foreign and domestic – will so empower the Boot vision of America’s role in the world (which I do not share) as to make a vote for McCain a vote for Boot.The alternative, which seems more plausible to me, is that a vote for McCain under these circumstances is a vote for something for modest: Namely, a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq that will proceed more gradually than the reduction Obama is promising, and that will leave the long-term question of the size and scope of America’s entanglement in the Middle East for future administrations to wrestle with.