The real John McCain

Why we should believe that Iraq Forever McCain is the real deal – and why we should reject him for this.

Recently John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency, made waves with several statements suggesting he is in favor of an indefinite occupation of Iraq. In an early January town hall meeting in New Hampshire, McCain declared that a hundred-year occupation “would be fine” with him “as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” Shortly after the event, when questioned about the comment by a reporter, McCain said it could be “a thousand years” or “a million years.” A couple of days later he reiterated his position on the Sunday morning political shows declaring, “I don’t think Americans are concerned if we’re there for one hundred years or a thousand years or ten thousand years.” He also added that under his plan permanent bases would be “necessary” and again noted that an indefinite occupation would be fine so long as “the Iraqis are doing the fighting and dying.” Finally, just last week, when questioned about these statements McCain declared that “anyone who worries about how long we’re in Iraq does not understand the military and does not understand war,” and that even asking the question about how long the United States was going to be in Iraq was “insulting to one’s intelligence.”

McCain’s comments are bizarre when you consider that roughly two-thirds of the American population has been in favor of withdrawal “immediately” or “within a year.” Moreover, even of the remaining third who say “stay as long as it takes” one would assume that some of these Americans would want to be given some ballpark figure. For McCain to essentially call all these people idiots seems, to me, a suspect strategy for the general election.

However, to be fair to McCain, I should note that if you don’t like his current “Iraq Forever!” position there have been many others to choose from over the course of the war and occupation. Early on, there was Roses and Flowers McCain who helpfully told us how easy the war was going to be. For instance, before the war began he declared, “I think the victory will be rapid, within about three weeks.” Barely a month into the war he talked about how the “conflict is still going to be relatively short” and that “the end is very much in sight.” Even several months after the war began – when signs of a growing insurgency were emerging – he was still (literally) declaring “mission accomplished.” A couple of months after that statement, Iraq Forever McCain was beginning to emerge as he told an audience that he was dishing out “straight talk” by telling them that “we’re going to be there for five or six years.”

However, by late last year, McCain was hedging his bets on the Iraq Forever position. In June, he told George Stephanopolous that he opposed permanent bases in Iraq. He followed this up in November when he told Charlie Rose that he didn’t agree with the idea of the “Korea model” of a long-term U.S. presence – even if there were no U.S. casualties – because “of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws.” So it really wasn’t until early this year that McCain’s new position was fully formed. I guess, by his own standards, he would consider his former selves insulting to his current self’s intelligence.

However, I’m willing to take McCain at his word that his current Iraq Forever position is his actual one and that his previous positions no longer apply. In many ways, his current position is the most plausible, given that McCain comes from an elite military lineage which has historically been invested in a hegemonic U.S. presence throughout the world. Matt Welch, in his new book “McCain: The Myth of a Maverick,” focuses heavily on this tradition and its implication. In an interview about the book, Welch notes that “McCain’s grandfather and father were the second-ever father-son four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy” and that they advocated a massive naval buildup that was “incredibly interventionist and expansionist” and earned his father the name Mr. Sea Power. McCain grew up inculcated with these elite imperial values as his father regularly consulted with “top historians, top senators and congressmen and top military brass.” Knowing this background, it is thus not hard to believe that McCain’s current position on Iraq is his actual one.

In many ways, even as someone who wants the United States out of Iraq, I find McCain’s newest position to be the healthiest for the coming general election campaign – particularly if Sen. Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. Unlike President George W. Bush, who has always tried to obscure the fact that the United States was establishing a long-term military presence in Iraq, McCain has now acknowledged this reality and seems to be building his general election strategy around it. If he goes up against Obama – who did not support the Iraq adventure and does not support an indefinite occupation – we can finally have a presidential election where these fundamental issues are debated.

Obama should welcome this debate given that McCain is wrong both strategically and morally. As to the former, McCain’s Iraq Forever position is not only unsustainable – short of instituting a draft – but it also disables the fundamental stated goal of the U.S. armed forces, that of national defense. Thus, McCain’s position exposes the perverse reality of the neoconservative foreign policy vision. Namely, in attempting to showcase a “muscular” U.S. foreign policy through an unnecessary war, neoconservatives like McCain have actually exposed the frailty of U.S. hegemony.

On the moral level, McCain’s dismissal of the Iraqi population is breathtaking. To suggest that a permanent U.S. occupation would be fine so long as “the Iraqis are doing the fighting and dying” is disturbing. Moreover, McCain doesn’t even seem to consider that the fear of a long-term U.S. military presence is precisely why Iraqis are killing and wounding U.S. troops. To have a presidential candidate who is explicitly affirming such a message is precisely the opposite one we should be sending if we want U.S. casualties brought down.

The strategic and moral bankruptcy of McCain’s new Iraq Forever position is manifest. However, his acceptance of the position should be welcomed by all as it gives the American people a chance to reject it in November of this year.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]