The recent exchange between the McCain and Obama campaigns over the GOP candidate’s remarks to Matt Lauer have underscored the central issue of this presidential election year and framed the campaign in terms of a single, overriding issue: the future of the American empire. In an interview with McCain on the Today Show, Lauer lobbed a softball about how "the surge is working," and McCain readily agreed, whereupon Lauer came back with:
"’If it’s working, senator, do you now have a better estimate of when American forces can come home from Iraq?’
"McCAIN: No, but that’s not too important. What’s important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That’s all fine."
The Obama camp immediately came back with a volley of startlingly ineffective rhetorical cant, wheeling out none other than John Kerry, who was for the war before he was against it. Kerry scolded McCain for being "out of touch and inconsistent" because, after all, it matters to the families of the troops when they come home. "It is important when they can come home. It is important when we can revitalize our military." Potshots from Harry Reid and DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen were similarly off the mark, with the former echoing Kerry’s "we don’t have enough troops" and the latter saying we need to get out of Iraq so we can get busy in Afghanistan.
The McCainiacs rightly complained that their candidate’s words were being taken out of context:
"John McCain was asked if he had a ‘better estimate’ for a timeline for withdrawal. As John McCain has always said, that is not as important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field. Any reasonable person who reads the full transcript would see this and reject the Obama campaign’s attempt to manipulate, twist and distort the truth.”
This is absolutely correct it isn’t that McCain is indifferent to the exigencies of serving two or three tours in Iraq. What he really said, however, was much worse. He wants to turn Iraq into yet another province of the American empire: like Japan, or South Korea. Indeed, the Korean model has long been held up by the administration as an ideal solution, albeit cautiously. Asked if this concept meant an occupation of 50-plus years, then-White House spokesman Tony Snow averred:
"No, no, I’m not. I don’t know. It is an unanswerable question, but I’m not making that suggestion.”
McCain, it seems, has answered the unanswerable and to his essential point the Democrats have no effective reply. After all, from their perspective, what would be wrong with a Korean-style occupation of Iraq? No casualties, no muss, no fuss except for an occasional anti-American demonstration. The Democrats condone such a policy in Korea and Japan, reflexively voting to fund those occupations and if we could reduce Iraq to the state of subservience experienced by these two satrapies, then what’s the problem?
The great problem with the Iraqis is that, unlike the Japanese and the Koreans, they’re fighting back. McCain’s response is to crush them. The Democrats would rather cut and run. Within the imperial paradigm accepted by both parties a conceptual framework that simply assumes our overweening global military presence the GOP has the advantage of looking "tougher," while the Democrats look merely craven.
There is little resistance in Congress to the imperial delusions of our rulers, but in the parliament that convenes in the Green Zone, a storm is brewing. The object of contention is the "status of forces" agreement the Bush administration is trying to impose on the Iraqis. The administration has long been moving to formalize the frankly colonial relationship between the U.S. and Iraq, and now those efforts are moving swiftly to a conclusion, with U.S. officials predicting an agreement sometime in July but I wouldn’t count on it.
We initially demanded over 200 military facilities across Iraq, but later whittled it down to a mere 58. We also wanted the right to detain any Iraqis without turning them over to Iraqi authorities, a free hand to conduct military operations, and immunity from prosecution by U.S. soldiers and private contractors in effect, a continuation of the occupation.
Word is out that the Americans are now in a compromising mood, agreeing that contractors should be subject to Iraqi law and accepting something less than a completely free hand militarily. Yet still there are ominous rumbles of protest, coming not just from the opposition but also from the ruling coalition of Shi’ite parties. Note the words of Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a leader of the Supreme Islamic Council fraction of the Iraqi parliament,
“We rejected the whole thing from the beginning. In my point of view, it would just be a new occupation with an Iraqi signature. Maybe the Iraqi government will say: ‘Hey, the security situation is better. We don’t need any more troops in Iraq. Or we could have a pledge of honor where the American troops leave but come back and protect Iraq if there is any aggression.”
Haider al-Abadi, a leader of Prime Minister Maliki’s own Da’wa party, declares:
“What the U.S. wants is to take the current status quo and try to regulate it in a new agreement. And what we want is greater respect for Iraqi sovereignty. Signing the agreement would mean that the Iraqi government had given up its sovereignty by its own consent. And that will never happen.”
The Post reports a top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as saying:
"The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq. If we can’t reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, ‘Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don’t need you here anymore.’ “
And these are the pro-American parties!
The American people voted in November, 2006, to bring the troops home and, instead, all they got was another two years of an increasingly bloody and expensive foreign occupation that threatens to morph into a larger, regional conflict. The Democrats, given the majority to end the war, elected instead to continue it, consistently voting for war funding whilst insisting on their eagerness to bring the troops home. It looks like, in the end, it will be Iraqi legislators, not Americans, who will finally accomplish what the Democrats promised.
All of this was predicted by war opponents before a single American boot tread on Iraqi ground: Pat Buchanan, I recall in particular, foresaw this day in all its tragic absurdity. What we are now witnessing is the revolt of the "liberated" people of Iraq against their American liberators.
So what will we do when they ask us to leave?
This is the acid test of Empire, a dry run of the new American Brezhnev Doctrine, which holds that once a country becomes an American vassal, that vassalage is permanent. When Hungary tried to leave the Warsaw Pact, the 1956 revolt was crushed by Soviet troops. When Koreans rose up against their American occupiers and the South Korean dictatorship during the 1980 Kwangju Rebellion, they were cut down with the full complicity of our government. What will the Americans do when the Iraqi forces they trained and armed turn on them?
The frontiers of empire are being pushed outward, and Iraq bristling with American bases and weaponry is slated to become a launching pad for U.S. military adventurism in the region. This is happening without significant domestic opposition from either party: aside from some very loud grumbling, the top national security mavens in the U.S. Senate have stopped short of taking any actions, aside from writing worrisome letters to Condi Rice. As the Post points out, "Although they have questioned the status of forces agreement’s contents, lawmakers have not raised the issue of its congressional ratification."
Of course not. When their guy gets in the White House, they’ll claim the same imperial prerogatives for themselves. An empire is run by an emperor, not a legislature.
Far from offering an alternative to the vision of America as a hegemon on which the sun never sets, the Democrats have developed their own version of militarism with a "humanitarian" face. Madeleine Albright bemoans the likelihood that the Iraq war will put the American people off to the sort of interventions she favors. Yes, this is the great humanitarian and Democratic secretary of state who declared that the sanctions on Iraq which killed tens of thousands of old people, the sick, and the very young were "worth it."
Absent a status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, the presence of our troops in Iraq will lack any formal legal basis, or even the pretense of one. The UN mandate is soon to run out, and the Iraqis are threatening to mount a fight over the extension of that, too a spectacle that could be mighty embarrassing for the U.S.
If and when Obama takes the White House, the Iraq war will immediately become his war, and his party’s war. The issue will then be: a negotiated end to the conflict and the occupation, or else a series of "surges" culminating in an open conflict with Iran. A third scenario an ignominious helicopters-taking-off-from-rooftops retreat is a real possibility, too. Staying the course is no longer an option.