Parsing McCain Re: Iraq

Demophilus writing in The Postmodern Conservative has an interesting post up on McCain’s Iraq position that I’d like to jostle with as a frame for this post.

D. comments on this video linked by Patrick Appel splicing together various McCain soundbytes on Iraq and has this to say:

Am I the only one who actually likes McCain more after watching it? By that I mean that with the partial exception of the “100 years” comment I actually think McCain has fairly consistently argued that adhering to an artificial timetable for withdrawal, regardless of the facts on the ground, would be imprudent. When he talks about staying for a longer period of time, McCain seems to to do so only with large caveats — most notably, that Americans aren’t being killed.

As to the first question, quite possibly.  And as to the latter point, McCain never made clear how you could have a major US presence in Iraq without major casualties/large numbers of attacks.  But otherwise and contra some on the left blogosphere, I think Demo. is right on this one.  McCain has pretty much always said his position is based on conditions.

Demophilus appreciates this (so-called) conditions on the ground based approach versus Obama’s which is a timetable come hell or high water (er low water in the Iraqi context).  [Worth noting that Obama’s opinion is no doubt based on his interpretation of the facts/conditions on the ground.  Putting more emphasis on the political/strategic side while McCain emphasizes more the tactical/military side but anyway the CW is this sharp dichotomy Demophilus adheres to so I’ll run with it].

But granting McCain’s relative consistency on the “my strategy is victory which is based on conditions on the ground position”–and there will be howls from others that I shouldn’t grant this but I think it’s more or less accurate–Demophilus and anyone who thinks this is a point in McCain’s favor is missing a fundamental point and is sadly mistaken in my opinion.  There’s something far more worrisome than McCain’s supposed inconsistency on timelines (contra some on the left).

Namely McCain’s definition of victory and his complete misread of the current political situation in Iraq.  While McCain has been somewhat vague on the issue of what exactly constitutes victory in Iraq (in his mind) unless he comes out specifically and says otherwise, I think the baseline is Fred Kagan’s definition of victory for Iraq.  [Because Kagan is one of the chief architects of the surge McCain constantly trumpets].

That definition is as follows:

Success will have been achieved when Iraq is a stable, representative state that controls its own territory, is oriented toward the West, and is an ally in the struggle against militant Islamism, whether Sunni or Shia.

And by reference to militant Shia Islam is clearly meant Iran.  Hence for victory to be dawning in Iraq, Iranian influence has to weakening in Iraq.

One problem.  And it’s a biggie.  That ain’t happening.  Even Crocker admitted as much to Obama in his recent Senate testimony.

Worse–McCain thinks it is.  Here is the transcript of his interview yesterday on This Week.

I quote from page 2 of the transcript (my emphasis):

MCCAIN: Now, the benefits are enormous of a stable ally in the region, of a country that is a friend of ours, a brake on Iranian influence — certainly a brake on al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations.

Hello Charlie.   First as proof of my Kagan baseline definition of Iraq, compare McCain’s definition with the one linked above.  Essentially equivalent.

Second the obvious point that the Shia were never and would never be fans of al-Qaeda (and neither would most Sunnis for that matter nor the Kurds, not to mention Saddam was not in bed with them and that one gets eliminated.  Surge or no, the Iraqis were going to kill al-Qaeda.  The Sunnis only had a devil’s bargain with AQI prior to the Awakening in order to use them to fight the Americans and the Shia.  As soon as AQI turned their guns on the Sunnis, it was lights out for them.  So take that one off McCain’s scorecard.

But thirdly and most importantly, a brake on Iranian influence?

The current government is dominated by Maliki’s Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Iraqi Council, the former hid out in Iran during Saddam’s reign, the latter of which was CREATED in Iran and some of whose upper tier leadership receive pension payments from Iran.  Maliki canned the SOFA argument in large part because he went to Iran and they told him he couldn’t sign it.  Iran brokered the deal between Maliki and Sadr.  Iran is pouring millions into the infrastructure of Southern Iraq aiding the massive increase in Shia pilgrimage lanes (in both directions).  Sadr is rumored to be studying in Iran.

And when the US draws down and the Sunni world refuses to accept a Shia Iraq (as will inevitably happen), who do you think in the whole wide world is going to be Shia Iraq’s biggest ally?  Take a wild guess.  Whether we stay for 16 months or 5, 10, 15 more years, that is going to be the case.

A brake on Iranian influence??? Hate to say it (and this isn’t an endorsement by any stretch), the brake on Iranian influence was uh….Saddam Hussein.  That’s why we goaded him into a war with Iran back in the day.  And why the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians, up until the end, even though they didn’t like the guy de facto supported him (and hence disapproved of our invasion) because they saw Hussein (correctly) as a….you guessed it….buffer against Iran.

Knocking Hussein & the Baath party out was inevitably going to lead to massive Iranian influence spreading west.

The central flaw with McCain on Iraq is not that he is now supposedly flip-flopping and upping his sense of how quickly victory is being achieved in Iraq–it is that his definition of victory in Iraq is unrealizable.  It will never happen.  So rather than admit the dissonance between his utopian vision for Iraq and the current reality he is simply conflated the two and sees Iraq more quickly becoming the utopia.  Either A)he’s being totally cynical or B)he’s believed his own bullshit.

Given that I don’t have a very high opinion of McCain’s understanding of the politics/culture/history of Iraq and the region, I tend to think it’s the latter.  Readers however can decide for themselves which is worse/more likely but neither bodes well for a man claiming to be the competent person for head of the Executive Branch of the US/Commander-in-Chief.

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Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 10:21 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Parsing McCain To underscore what I was saying here, this reality does not line up with McCain’s definition of success (h/t to Juan Cole) from […]


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