04 September 2008


09/04/2008, 1:12 PM #

A constant theme of John McCain has been that we are winning the war in Iraq, and that the Democrats would snatch defeat out of that victory. Recently, the AP released some statistics about the Iraq culled from a variety of sources and available
here. They confirm that strides have been made to reduce violence and improve basic services (including water and sewage) to ordinary Iraqis. McCain and Bush can rightly point to the "Anbar Awakening", in which Sunni sheiks helped the U.S. opposed the Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. troop strength is down from its peak of 170,000 last year. Shiites, meanwhile, have made efforts to oppose or buy off the Mahdi army. These are the developments that lead McCain to claim that we are headed to victory in Iraq.

The problem with this claim is that McCain's "victory" is fully as scary as the defeat he fears. Present-day Iraq is such a bright, shiny place that over a million Iraqis choose to live in Syria. Even during the current relative lull in fighting, over 400 civilians are being killed each month. The Mahdi Army has been tamed more by cash than by force, and continues to stage anti-American demonstrations. The "Sons of Iraq" -- former insurgents now on the US payroll- have been declared outlaws by the Iraqi government and may soon resume their insurgency, depriving the U.S. of an ally against al Qaeda and reversing many of the current gains. The political solution that was supposed to be taking place as the security situation improved has not materialized. The current al Malaki government is insisting on American withdrawal by 2011, instituting exactly the sort of conditions that McCain claims would hurt his march to victory.

The U.S. has been played. American troops have been used to help particular sects of Sunnis and Shia win against rival sects ahead of a civil war. Millions of people remain fearful of returning to their homes. Oil production remains lower than pre-war levels, and it appears that one of the main beneficiaries of future gains will be
China. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but China's gains come at a continuing cost of American lives.

The current situation is only "good" in comparison to the utter Iraq clusterfuck of 2004-2006, in which American mistakes (most notably disbanding an army that stood ready to help us maintain security) resulted in a terrifying insurgency. But by most other measures, Iraq remains a fiasco. Whatever government or governments emerge in the region are likely to be closer to Iran and Syria than the United States. Iraqis have not forgotten what happened to their country in the wake of the U.S. invasion, and do not feel especially grateful that the Americans have made things a little less bad (if a mugger stole $200 from you and then decided to give you back ten bucks, you'd still want the bastard to go to jail). The money and troops we devote to helping the Al Malaki government keep the United States bogged down when what we most need is the flexibility, resources, and speed to handle an invisible, changing enemy.

This is a case where McCain's experience leads him astray. He's fighting the last war, a war of armies, when the U.S. needs to be fighting the current war, one in which intelligence and diplomacy are key components of strategy. For the sake of rhetorical flourish -- of appearing tough to his domestic backers -- he would claim victory without offering even the foggiest vision of what "victory" in the case of Iraq means, of what the would look like and how it would help any of us. This is bravado masquerading as strength, a victory that suits the needs of a few of his key backers, that comes at the expense of millions of dollars and thousands of deaths, and that leaves you and me no safer than before.

Snolly G briefly posted the question of whether anybody on the Fray has ever changed anybody else's mind -- I thought not. Certainly I haven't converted anybody in my time here. What I do get from the Fray is different ways of thinking about particular topics -- different angles and readings. This post, then, is not so much about voting as listening. There was a time when I thought a vote for McCain might get us out of Iraq more quickly, because you could simply make an arbitrary declaration of victory, leave, and pass the buck. But the more I listen to the man, the more I think he simply wishes to replay his past to achieve a different outcome. The sad truth is that Iraq is not Vietnam. It's much worse.


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