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Election 2008 Foreign Policy Iraq McCain National Security Obama Politics The War on Terrorism

Setting America Up to Fail

[digg-reddit-me]Putting aside the controversy over whether the New York Times should have published John McCain’s op-ed piece – his piece itself illustrates the lose-lose strategy McCain is putting forward.

This line in particular from his unpublished op-ed struck me:

…if we don’t win the war, our enemies will.

What interests me about both McCain’s and Obama’s positions is that both have stuck to their general idea about what the next step would be despite the changing situation on the ground.

McCain was in favor of troops staying longer in Iraq when things were bad and getting worse; now that things are improving, he is still in favor of keeping our forces there.  Obama was in favor of pulling out of Iraq while the situation was deteriorating; and now that the situation is improving, he still is in favor of ending the occupation.  McCain’s editorial tries to hit Obama on this point, unconvincingly in light of McCain’s own seeming intransigence.

But it isn’t entirely accurate to call Obama’s and McCain’s fixed goals in spite of the changing circumstances “intransigence”.  The crux of the disagreement between the candidates is not the contrast that McCain sets up in his op-ed:

I have also said that any draw-downs must be based on a realistic assessment of conditions on the ground, not on an artificial timetable crafted for domestic political reasons.

Rather, the crux of their disagreement is about the wisdom of the Iraq adventure and the overall strategy of establishing some kind of neo-empire in the Middle East.  McCain believes that the Iraq War was necessary and strategically sound – and that although he may not call it an empire or neo-empire – he believes America must have an established military presence in the Middle East as a matter of policy.  Obama is suspicious of this view – believing that any form of imperial influence exerted over the Middle East will cause a backlash greater than the benefits – and he specifically pointed out before the war, and has kept pointing out, that the Iraq adventure was strategically “dumb” and that it was benefited our enemies in the Middle East even as it has undermined our friends.  By taking out Iraq, we removed Iran’s regional foil – and we set up an Iraqi regime that has become a regional ally of Iran.

There are two competing sets of suppositions here:

First:

  • If our invasion of Iraq was ill-conceived.
  • If the invasion of Iraq was the right decision but poorly executed.

Second:

  • If our continued presence there continues to create problems both for our military and for the Iraqi government.
  • If our continued presence could help stabilize the country.

On the first question, the country and the world have overwhelmingly come to believe the first option.

On the second, the answer is less clear. What is clear is that:

  • We do not have enough of a military presence to stabilize the entire country – only relatively small portions of it.
  • We have been acting as a buffer between some of the ethnic groups composing Iraq (even as our invasion and the aftermath hypercharged tensions between the groups.)
  • We are degrading our entire military and investing exorbitant amounts of money in the the country (at a time when our government is testing the limits of the world’s tolerance for our fiscal insolvency.)
  • We are inspiring more extremists than we are killing – as even Don Rumsfeld admitted.
  • Our presence in Iraq has made us more vulnerable to Iran and less able to take any necessary actions against Iran.

These commonly accepted facts demonstrate our short-term tactical limits and our tactical utility – but most of all, they demonstrate that our long-term strategy is underming our position.  From the Iraqi perspective, Maliki clearly thinks that it is best for Iraq if America leaves as soon as possible.  Analyzing what we know about Iraq leads to the same conclusion.

The only possible long-term salvation that could come from this debacle is if Iraq becomes an American-friendly, stable democracy.  Which is possible, but not the most likely conclusion based on the facts as they are now.  It is a possiblity based on a desperate hope.  But even this long-term possibility would necessitate that we demonstrate that we are intent to leave Iraq as soon as possible – and certainly as soon as we are asked.

McCain – by focusing on our short-term tactical successes (and ignoring our tactical limits and our strategic errors) – is bringing America down the wrong path – and setting us up to fail.  By saying, “if we don’t win the war, our enemies will,” McCain is attempting to impose a framework on Iraq that does not apply.  The Iraqis themselves defeated Al Qaeda and the extremists after they became tired of their extremism – with our troops playing a supporting role.  One of our primary functions in Iraq is preventing a civil war between the Iraqi ethnic groups.

The question is: Is McCain himself so deluded as to see Iraq as simply a battle between us and our enemies – like World War II – or is he merely using this framework to allow him to use Iraq as a political weapon and to paint his opponent as a “weak-kneed liberal”?

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