The McCain Doctrine

If you liked the last five years under President George W. Bush, you’ll love four more under President John McCain.

By now, you’re familiar with all of the ugly details. The war in Iraq is five years old, 4,001 American soldiers are dead (not to mention the untold number of dead Iraqis) and we’ve run up a $600 billion tab. It’s good to occasionally let those facts wash over you, just to remind yourself of how awful this little nation-building experiment has been. But all of those horrors considered, the important question remains: Now what? Where is our strategy headed? While the future is usually cloudy, Sen. John McCain doesn’t leave anything up to the imagination: He brings four more years of the same failed policy.

Earlier this week, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker presented their newest Iraq plan to President George W. Bush. It should come as no surprise that they are calling for a steady level of troops with minimal withdrawal for the foreseeable future. By now, we all know better than to expect this administration to change course. The “new” plan simply confirms what we already knew – that the next president will be the one making the decision on Iraq. If McCain is the one making that call, then we’re all in big trouble.

Iraq continues to deteriorate. Last year’s surge of American troops was a striking failure, regardless of what war cheerleaders might wish to believe. Remember: The surge was intended to create a period of calm within Iraq in order to foster political progress. Violence did, indeed, drop for a variety of reasons – some related to the surge, some not – but the political reconciliation never came. Iraq’s national government is still laughably weak, and the Sunni and Shia within the Iraqi Parliament have failed to make any headway. McCain has, from the beginning, been the most vocal proponent of the surge strategy. Its failure is his, as well.

The surge is now ending, out of necessity. We simply can’t sustain such high troop levels (a high of nearly 170,000 soldiers) any longer, and by this summer we will have pulled out about 30,000 troops. Already, violence in Iraq is accelerating. Last summer, the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who controls the so-called Mahdi Army militia, declared a cease-fire. Back in 2004, Mahdi fighters wreaked havoc in Iraq, and last summer’s cease-fire was crucial in lowering the violence. That cease-fire appears to be ending. On Tuesday, Baghdad and other cities in Iraq were rocked by new waves of violence as Iraqi forces battled militia fighters. The end of the Mahdi cease-fire will be yet another blow to the chances of a stable Iraq. It also reminds us how badly our current policy has failed and how important it is for us to implement a new strategy in Iraq.

A McCain presidency would not just continue the mistakes of the Bush White House – it would amplify the disaster. McCain continues to call for more troops, more time, more money, more lives. But as the failed surge has shown us, there is no military solution in Iraq. We can’t keep 200,000 soldiers in the country, and even if we could, it would not solve Iraq’s political and religious divides. And yet, McCain continues to insist that the surge has been an unqualified success. It makes one wonder what criteria McCain is using to evaluate the war. It doesn’t seem to be one grounded in reality.

To make matters worse, McCain doesn’t seem to have a very good handle on the basic conflicts in play within Iraq. Multiple times over the past few weeks, McCain has made the claim that the Iranian government has been “taking al-Qaida into Iran, training them and sending them back (to Iraq).” It’s a statement so wildly inaccurate that it boggles the mind – anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge of the situation could tell you that Iran is a Shiite country, while al-Qaida is dominated by Sunnis. McCain’s campaign has tried to pass off this absurdity as a simple slip of the tongue, but the senator has made this mistake on more than one occasion. Even as a slip-up, asserting that Iran trains al-Qaida is a spectacular failure of understanding. McCain is running for president on his foreign policy expertise (because, as he’s admitted, he doesn’t know anything about the economy), but his confusion over the basic religious conflict in Iraq does not exactly inspire confidence.

In any case, we are left to wonder what purpose an American presence in Iraq serves. If McCain, Bush and the rest of the war supporters honestly think that a military victory can be won by committing more time and effort to Iraq, then they’re delusional. That victory is not coming. There is no endgame; no amount of American time or troops will reconcile the complicated differences within Iraq.

When you look closely at McCain’s comments, however, you can begin to see that he is not actually delusional. In fact, he knows exactly what he wants: permanent military occupation of Iraq. That, for McCain, is “victory.”

By now, McCain’s assertion that we could be in Iraq for 100 years is well known. What he said next has not been discussed nearly as much: “As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it’s fine with me, and I hope it would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence [in Iraq].”

If Americans are not being “injured or harmed or wounded or killed,” that either means that (a) all of the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq have been eliminated, or (b) the Iraqi army is now capable of handling the country’s security. Both of those scenarios sound like the victory that we have long been promised. Our troops would not be needed, so we could finally bring them home. Instead, McCain wants to keep American soldiers in Iraq, even if they don’t have any fighting to do. That, quite simply, is occupation.

If McCain actually wants to permanently occupy Iraq (and it’s clear that he does), then we need to make him say as much, clearly and publicly. He, like other war supporters, has been able to vaguely promise “victory in Iraq” without ever defining victory. Most Americans, when they think of winning in Iraq, think of the day when we can withdraw our troops and leave a stable Iraq behind. That day will never come, and McCain doesn’t want it to. For McCain, Bush and the rest of the neoconservative right, every day with troops in Iraq is a victory. The longer we stay, the harder it gets to leave. The war in Iraq will be nearly six years old by the time Bush leaves office. A President McCain would ensure that we, at least, crack the 10-year mark, and would likely bog us down for much longer. We simply can’t afford to let that happen.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected].