John McCain was really caught off guard not only by the reaction to his recent walk in the Iraqi marketplace ringed by a veritable wall of security, while US army helicopters hovered overhead but also by subsequent events on the ground. "I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq," he told the cadets in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute:
"Unlike the veterans here today, I risked nothing more threatening than a hostile press corps. And my only mission was to inform my opinions with facts. We still face many difficult challenges in Iraq. That is undeniable. But we have also made, in recent weeks, measurable progress in establishing security in Baghdad and fighting al-Qaeda in Anbar province."
No sooner had he spoken, then this happened and also this. It seems everything, these days, is conspiring to make McCain look foolish. Much of his speech was simply grandstanding: he begged his fellow politicians not to "take advantage of the public’s frustration," and "accept defeat," and distanced himself from the Bush administration by sternly referring to the "flawed strategy" of the past. We must, McCain insisted, put our faith in General Petraeus a name that evokes the ghosts of the Roman Caesars and yet the leitmotif of his peroration is not faith but "progress":
"These and other indicators of progress are encouraging, but they are not determinative. I understand the damage false optimism does to public patience and support. I learned long ago to be skeptical of official reports that are long on wishful thinking and short on substance. As we make progress in some areas, the enemy strikes where we do not have as great a presence. But security in the capital is indispensable to a greater level of security throughout the country so that political and economic progress can occur. And in Baghdad we are making progress. We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq and not how we wish them to be."
Aside from the several pot-shots he takes at the White House in this key passage, and the utter wrongness of it which was all too readily apparent almost as soon as it was uttered one has to ask: progress toward what? McCain fears defeat, but never defines "victory." He says we’re at war, but is vague about the nature or even the exact identity of the "enemy." He denounces Islamic "extremists," but who, exactly, is he talking about: the Shi’ites? The Sunnis? He mentions al Qaeda, but, Bush-like, conflates this very small group with the Iraqi insurgency a much broader phenomenon. He attacks "party militias" but these parties are the democratically elected government of Iraq. Should we go to war with them, too? The more answers McCain gives, the more questions he raises. "However it ends," he declares,
"The war in Iraq will have a profound influence on the future of the Middle East, global stability, and the security of the United States, which will remain, for the foreseeable future, directly affected by events in that dangerous part of the world. The war is part of a broader struggle in the Arab and Muslim world, the struggle between violent extremists and the forces of modernity and moderation."
On the contrary, unless this war ends, the consequences for the region and the world are sure to be profoundly disastrous. If it goes on much longer, it will spread beyond its present boundaries, and then McCain will have his "broader struggle" with American forces caught right in the middle of it. The McCainiac view of the Middle East which he portrays as two irreconcilable movements pitted one against the other is dangerously Manichean, and hardly describes the real balance of forces. The Middle East is hardly ready for a fight to the death between religious fundamentalism and modernity. Such a struggle is bound to result in a bloodbath, as well as the victory of the former and an economic catastrophe for the energy-dependent West.
"Extremism" seems to be a matter of perspective, especially insofar as Islam is concerned. Modernity is going to have to settle for only a partial victory in the Middle East if that. And it won’t be achieved by military means, not even secondarily. In any case, it is beyond our power to usher modernity into a region that has yet to experience the Oriental equivalent of the Enlightenment, and even if it were, the price in blood and treasure would be far too high.
McCain poses as a hard-headed realist, who wants "a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq," but he underestimates the precariousness of the U.S. position a miscalculation underscored by the attack on the Iraqi parliament in the supposedly secure precincts of U.S. power, the Green Zone. When the history of this war is written, this breach in the walls of the American sanctum sanctorum will be seen as the turning point, the moment when the outcome a defeat for the U.S. became readily apparent for all with eyes to see.
Imagine, if you will, how the Iraqis see this signal event an explosion that felled not only some of their elected representatives, but also killed the myth of American power and it is clear why the war is lost. In any civil war, the majority of the people are not on one side or the other: they are too busy just trying to stay alive. The moment they realize that these guys over here can’t protect them, but these other guys can, the fate of the nation is sealed. The Americans can’t even shield their own sock puppets from harm: how can anybody expect them to provide security for the average Iraqi?
The "surge" is failing just as soon as it’s being launched, and it’s only appropriate that the campaign of the presidential candidate who has become its foremost champion should fall by the wayside alongside it, and because of it. McCain is declining in the polls, primarily due to his pro-war stance, which is wildly unpopular: true to form, McCain, the drama-queen, touts this as a virtue, portraying himself as a swimmer-against-the-tide. Somehow he seems to believe this contrarian stance will bring back the old magic of the "Straight Talk Express," when he seemingly sped down the road to the White House with nary an obstacle in his path. This time, however, the road is a lot bumpier, and he isn’t quite up to speed.
McCain never mentions the original premises upon which this war was launched: we never hear about those "weapons of mass destruction" much anymore, from him or anyone else. Nor do we hear much about the necessity of exporting "democracy," except in the vaguest terms. Instead, McCain and the War Party now say we can’t leave because the consequences would be unthinkable:
"A power vacuum in Iraq would invite further interference from Iran at a time when Tehran already feels emboldened enough to develop nuclear weapons, threaten Israel and America, and kidnap British sailors. If the government collapses in Iraq, which it surely will if we leave prematurely, Iraq’s neighbors, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, will feel pressure to intervene on the side of their favored factions. This uncertain swirl of events could cause the region to explode and foreclose the opportunity for millions of Muslims and their children to achieve freedom. We could face a terrible choice: watch the region burn, the price of oil escalate dramatically and our economy decline, watch the terrorists establish new base camps or send American troops back to Iraq, with the odds against our success much worse than they are today."
But of course there would be no power vacuum in Iraq if we left: at least, not for long. A Shi’ite strongman would soon emerge to replace the weak Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, probably someone along the lines of Moqtada Sadr: a Shi’ite and yet a nationalist, and resistant to the wiles of Iran.
The reality is that, instead of preventing a power vacuum, we have created one.
What is astonishing about all this, however, is how quickly and cluelessly McCain veers back and forth between al Qaeda and Iran as the supposed main danger to U.S. interests in the region. First Osama bin Laden is casting his long shadow over the Iraqi landscape, then it is the mullahs of Tehran who pose the major threat so which is it?
McCain seems confused on this point, and the only sense to be made of it is that he fears the most likely possibility: a complete Shi’ite takeover. Yet it is just not credible that Iraq’s Sunni neighbors will intervene on behalf of their co-religionists: after all, the Sunnis are a minority in Iraq, and, if anything favorable can be said about the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt, it is that they are realists. They are highly unlikely to launch a religious jihad to restore the minority dictatorship of the Sunnis.
The "uncertain swirl of events" McCain warns against has already been set in motion by the U.S. invasion, and the process is accelerated by our continuing presence. If the region burns, it will be due to the escalation of the war urged on us by McCain and his pro-war cohorts into Syria, Iran, and perhaps beyond.
We do face what McCain calls "a terrible choice": the choice between a mere disaster and a full-fledged regional (even global) catastrophe. We can leave, and cut our losses, or stay and provoke a wider war. McCain has made his choice: and the majority of Americans, I am glad to say, have made another choice entirely. Now it remains to be seen if we can stay out of a war with Iran until President Bush leaves office, and about that I’m not making any bets one way or the other. One thing we can bet on, however, and you can take this prediction to the bank: if John McCain ever makes it to the Oval Office as anything other than a visitor, we’ll be at war with Iran in a matter of months.
McCain never met a war he didn’t support: he is a militarist to his very bones. Combine this with his explosive temperament, and the near-dictatorial powers of the President when it comes to foreign policy, and you have a very volatile mixture.