McCain's Blurred Iraq Vision
Sen. John McCain's major speech yesterday outlined his vision for what the world would look like at the end of his first term. But it was the scenario he proposed for Iraq that drew the most attention:
By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders. The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role.
It's an optimistic view for how Iraq might look. It's also completely divorced from reality.
Let's take a look each sentence:
"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom." -- This must be read in conjunction with the last sentence, where McCain sees America having a continuing military presence that does not include a "direct combat role." In other words, he sees a long-term advisory presence, and probably a long-term counterterrorism presence, too. How long? As long as it takes -- could be a hundred years or longer, according to McCain's earlier remarks.
And what might this advisory force look like? It would probably require thousands, if not tens of thousands, of advisers embedded in every level of the Iraqi army, police and government -- plus tens of thousands of support troops, headquarters troops, civilians and contractors to sustain them. A CNAS study from last year said an advisory force would need roughly 60,000 troops, though that number seems optimistically low, and probably doesn't include all the counterterrorism forces we would want to keep in Iraq.
The Iraq War has been won. -- Uh huh. I suppose it depends on your definition of "Iraq War" and "won." The old Clausewitizian phrase is that war is a continuation of politics. It's not won until its political objectives are achieved. McCain might like to embrace a Mahanian view of warfare, where war is won when you kill your enemies. But this is the 21st Century, and Mahan's view of warfare was dangerously incomplete. America did win a stunning tactical and operational victory in 2003 -- but we have a long way to go before we consummate any sort of strategic success in Iraq.
Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. -- Again, it depends on your definition of "functioning" and "democracy." And I suppose it depends on your definition of "is" too. McCain's outlook here mirrors the Bush administration's unflagging optimism towards Iraq -- and that has been quite delusional over the past five years. The Maliki government has made some strides towards embracing the Sunni minority, and there is some reason for hope about this fall's provincial elections. But the national government still does not function in any objective sense; the provincial and local governments still only deliver services when directly enabled by U.S. or foreign assistance. nd I don't see much improvement on the horizon, certainly not by 2013. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Baghdad.
Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced. -- Possible, although I think there is far more at work on this dimension than meets the eye.
"Civil war has been prevented; militias disbanded; the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated; and the Government of Iraq is capable of imposing its authority in every province of Iraq and defending the integrity of its borders." -- Dude, seriously? For something to be "prevented" means that it didn't happen. I'm not sure if you remember 2005, 2006 and 2007, but there was an Iraqi civil war and it claimed the lives of many thousands. We haven't prevented it at all; indeed, we probably fueled it by training and equipping Iraqi security forces who fought as its partisans. Furthermore, the conditions for civil war still exist, and will continue to exist for some time.
McCain might also want to check his facts about the Iraqi security forces. Few observers would define them now as anything near "professional and competent" -- certainly not in any national sense. There are good Iraqi units, but there are also very bad ones. The Iraqi police remain in dreadful shape. The border police and other security agencies are still in their infancy. Every government report on the Iraqi security forces continues to emphasize their limited utility and viability -- especially their problems with sustainment, leadership and sectarian influence. Iraqi forces will take many, many years to develop into a professional and competent force.
"The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role." -- As stated above, McCain seems to envision a smaller force for Iraq, but not a much smaller one. Not without some irony, he seems to be trying to pivot towards the advisers-and-counterterrorism model that was envisioned by the Iraq Study Group and the CNAS study. It may bring the troop presence down to 100,000 or so, but those troops would likely remain in Iraq for a generation or longer. And, more important, there's a big risk under this strategy that Iraq would erupt again into civil war, and that we won't have the troops there to do anything about it.
I applaud McCain for his willingness to think of an end date to America's involvement in Iraq. Like the candidate I'm supporting, I believe that our strategic interests require us to leave Iraq -- but that the challenge will be getting out more responsibly than we got in. But McCain's strategic outlook on Iraq is clouded, and his plans aren't grounded in reality.
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