By Stanley Kutler
John McCain now owns the Republican presidential nomination, and he also has Iraq all to himself. He has identified strongly with the “surge,” trumpeting it as a success, confident we are on the side of history. Success, for him, means winning the war and thwarting further terrorist attacks on the United States. But now, as our potential commander in chief, this is not enough: McCain is calling for arms, treasure and energy to do more. The traits, the taste for Empire remain.
McCain is the candidate who presumes to speak with the greatest authority on Iraq. It is his signature—and, seemingly, his sole—issue. Apparently his experience as a naval officer gives his views great authority. The Democratic presidential candidates (and Congress) meanwhile are his accomplices. They have conceded the ground to him, and they do so with no counterattacks on his positions and strategic vision, ones at odds with public opinion, and which have proved futile and empty during the past seven years.
Hillary Clinton wishes the issue away, vaguely promising to reduce our presence after she hears back from the joint chiefs. Barack Obama similarly uses vague assertions, while deftly counterpunching against Clinton’s charges that he will not know how to answer the phone at 3 a.m.
In his maiden speech as the nominee, McCain reiterated his support for destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime but artfully insisted that he had criticized the “failed tactics” that bogged us down for so long. Truth be told, McCain has retreated from his earlier claim, at the Reagan Library debate on Jan. 30, that he urged President Bush to dismiss Donald Rumsfeld. That turned out to be untrue, and he has since finessed his position, simply asserting the familiar military litany: We had to do more.
McCain believes “that the next president doesn’t get to remake that decision” to go to war. We were right to be there, and he adds that we will remain there as long as our “adversaries in the region . . . extend their influence and undermine our security there.” “Our security there”—sounds like a battle cry for establishing our own garrison state, fulfilling George W. Bush’s wish for an American presence similar to what we have enjoyed for over 60 years in Korea. For Bush, the “Korea model,” as he called it, means a U.S. presence for stabilizing the Middle East. He clearly intends his successors to defend and continue his war, expanding his grandiose visions for the area—with, incidentally, no disruptions for our friends who supply us with oil. McCain is just what the president ordered.
The debate today about American forces in Iraq is really quite simple: We discuss how we will stay, not how we will leave. Perhaps there will be some drawdowns to a friendly perimeter. But the indications are that we intend to stay. The fortress that is our embassy is nearing completion; the permanent bases in the country are set in concrete. McCain makes no secret of his plans for our future in Iraq, while his possible opponents play semantic games, each anxious to burnish his or her anti-war bona fides, but both increasingly aware of their current inability to affect the facts on the ground and of the futility they will face if elected. Borrowing familiar lines from the Richard Nixon Vietnam Playbook, a war that still reverberates in his mind, McCain stated that we can leave only with “our country’s interests secure and our honor intact.” Bush clearly intends to establish the facts before he leaves office, and his successor (and successors) probably will be able to do little.
American Ambassador Ryan Crocker and numerous officials from the White House, Pentagon and the State Department are set to begin talks between the U.S. and Iraq to establish plans for what the Pentagon has called “a long-term relationship” between the two nations. This will include, of course, the inevitable status-of-forces agreement, establishing the legal basis for the presence of American troops. Basically, such agreements give the U.S. extraterritorial control over its bases and personnel.
Congress has no role in this. The American ambassador has said that the president alone will determine the agreements with Iraq. His successor will have little effect on them, short of outright repeal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates parted the curtain when he said, “I would anticipate that there would be some modest level of U.S. troops in Iraq at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government for some considerable period of time.” The Iraqi defense minister tosses out the date—2018.
For good measure, in his victory speech McCain obliquely reminded us about the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which he and Sen. Clinton supported and which allowed, if not encouraged, the president to “combat” and “contain” Iran and its hostile acts in Iraq. McCain noted that we must not encourage terrorists “to attack us elsewhere with weapons we dare not allow them to possess.” Obviously, McCain shares Bush’s obsession with Iran. In the meantime, a linchpin of the axis of evil, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Baghdad—without a vast deployment of American armed guards—and was welcomed with bright smiles, red carpets and warm embraces. Imagine the cloistered welcome for Bush or McCain if either goes there to sign a security treaty, guaranteeing the presence of American troops in Iraq for years to come.
Bush has determined and is further implementing his vision of the future; McCain endorses it; he is on board. Bush has vetoed Congress’ limited strictures against torture, including a ban on waterboarding and other extreme interrogation tactics. McCain’s one-time opposition to torture is now a thing of the past. Furthermore, he has refused to join a bipartisan group of his Senate Armed Services colleagues in asking for an audit of how Iraq is spending its oil revenues.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The only thing we learn from the past is to forget it. But not so long ago, Vietnam taught us invaluable lessons. No, they were not about dominoes that never fell; it was that the United States had to understand and recognize the limits of power. An arrogant giant, knowing no boundaries, no restraint, could be defeated by Lilliputians. George W. Bush hardly gave the Vietnam War a thought 40 years ago, and surely he does not now. And sadly, neither does John McCain, who, with all that experience, should know better.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.”
AP photo / Charles Dharapak