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.

By Phillip Carter |  May 16, 2008; 10:26 AM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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He's handicapped by the prior administrations failures. The other problem for him is he's confined to talking about his "hopes" and not his plans. His plan is to keep hanging on and HOPE things get better, but much like the current President (who has the same plan) he can't really say what we're going to DO differently in Iraq that generates any public faith in achieving victory there.
He can't "de-surge", he can't even publicly consider it until he is nominated and the red meat right is no longer in control of his agenda. That's even more accurate if his actual plan is to declare victory hand this fiasco back to the Iraqis. He has to toe the Republican line for now and chant "We're in it till we win it" with the rest of the trailing 28.
Can he win with that strategy? The war is the bat the left likes to use on the Republican pinata but the moderates are more aghast at the state of the Economy, the Dollar and the Debt. If he hadn't foolishly admitted he doesn't know beans about the economy, and if he'd stop hugging Bush, he might have a chance, but as it stands now he looks like easy meat for the Democratic nominee.

Posted by: dijetlo | May 16, 2008 1:25 PM

Why are his hopes for Iraq so ridiculous? Iraq is making great gains EVERY DAY. I know you don't want to report them, because then half your candidates platform would be thrown out. Also, he didn't say we would win militarily only, he said he would like to see a functioning democracy, that is how we have WON...
you twist and twist the comments don't you.

Also, why is his vision of Iraq so implausible when your candidate wants an immediate withdrawal, yet has not been in the Senate for more than 2 months total in the past two years...he has no idea what is going on right now, and will most likely be very shocked when he begins getting the briefings that Pres Bush is getting.. then we'll see if he actually follows through on his promises to everyone.

Posted by: Matt E | May 16, 2008 3:27 PM

One cannot make someone love you! Therefore-Start withdrawing our fine, brave, and over used troops from Iraq.

Posted by: ghostcommander | May 16, 2008 3:31 PM

I agree that McCain goes a little overboard in this speech, but I think it is far more realistic, and probably more like what will actually happen (regardless of who wins). I don't believe Obama when he says he would pull out within 18 months (I think that's his timeline, not totally sure though). I just don't think it will happen, he doesn't want to have the chaos that may result on his watch. And Obama's "strike force" plan is a joke, I think we all know that is largely political. In this case I think McCain is the least deluded out of three deluded candidates.

Posted by: DHobgood | May 16, 2008 4:12 PM

Gotta say Carter, I often disagree with you, but I'm glad you have the balls to openly admit who you are supporting. At least we know where you are coming from, which one can't say for most in the media.

Posted by: DHobgood | May 16, 2008 4:18 PM

"It's an optimistic view for how Iraq might look. It's also completely divorced from reality."

But withdrawing every BCT from OIF in 16 months while leaving a large "advisory" and "counter-terrorism" QRF isn't?

How selective we are on "reality" during the silly season of national elections.

Posted by: Full of it Phil | May 16, 2008 5:11 PM

John McCain is trying to win the Vietnam war. He is seriously delusional. Rhetoric over reality is a simple definition for being delusional.

Iraq can not while under American occupation resolve its internal political contradictions. Whenever we leave, whether in twelve months or twelve years, there will be an immediate shake out.

It would seem most likely that there will be a civil war to determine, once and for all, if the Sunni will reclaim dominance or whether the majority Shiia will win. Backed by Iran, and which for its own interests will want to make sure that they are not again attacked and suffer mass casualties as they did in the 1980's, I say the Shiia will win.

Read Lt. General William Odom in Nieman Watchdog. He has served as National Security advisor. This is what he says in far greater eloquence and detail.

And a third wasting war, against Iran, is our doom. I doubt rhetoric over reality sees that as a problem.

Posted by: tarquinis | May 16, 2008 6:41 PM

Matt E, your posting is ridiculous. It takes far more twisting of words to accept and build on any of your premises than it does (as Carter demonstrates) to parse McCain's blustery speech and reveal its few pros and many cons. Get real. Sadly, McCain-as-Bush III appears to be a genuine possibility.

Posted by: trevor | May 16, 2008 6:43 PM

By 2013 it won't matter whether we win or lose in Iraq. Oil will be at 1000 dollars a barrel. Gas will be at 40 dollars a gallon. It will take the average worker his entire paycheck to fill up the SUV. Only the super rich can afford to drive anywhere.

The American people will no longer see the need to fight for oil in the Middle East.

It is about oil, no?

Posted by: Tao | May 16, 2008 6:44 PM

Full of it Phil,

I agree with you somewhat. I think Obama's and Clinton's concrete declaration about pulling troops out of Iraq within 16 months is irresponsible. They have no idea what the situation will look like when they take office. But I belive if Obama or Clinton takes office, and it is blatantly apparent that pulling troops in in 1 1/2 years would lead to rampant bloodshed, cooler heads would prevail and they'd modify their plans.

Here's the problem with McCain. First, I don't know why he thinks the Shi'a dominated Iraqi government and population isn't going to jump right in bed with Shi'a populated Iran as soon as we finish cleaning up the mess. Seconnd, the gall to pick THE YEAR when all this "progress" is supposed to come to fruition is insulting. After all the broken promises, and incompetence during Bush's little excursion, McCain is still peddling the vision of this thriving, America loving Democracy in Iraq, with a military capable of defeating the terrorists in a single bound! It has taken our military hundreds of years to develop the doctrine needed to be as effective as it is...but McCain wants us to belive the Iraqi can duplicate this feat by 2013...and he's supposed to be the one with all the national security experience.

Third and most frustrating...we've heard this song before. We heard it before the invasion, we heard it during the worst escalation of sectarian violence, we heard it during the surge (which doesn't seem to have worked as well as the proponents said it did), and we're hearing it now. "Hold on for a little while longer, it'll get better, trust me." We've heard this before, we heard if from George Bush, and now John McCain is talking the same noise. Regardless of your party affiliation, aren't you tired of this? Aren't you tired of more grandiose, unvetted promises, dead or injured American troops, and growing debts? Aren't you tired of it?

Posted by: Bernard | May 16, 2008 6:58 PM

John McCain said, "The Iraq War has been won"

He gets it. No, I am not talking truth or fact or about anything that has to do with what is going on in Iraq. I am talking about the political perception that we need so we can withdrawal "with honor". The best way for us to leave Iraq (from the incumbent party's perspective) is to declare victory. It doesn't matter if it is a true victory or not, it just needs to be a victory. This way the Republicans and all those who have supported the war throughout the years, can avoid the dreaded "cut and run" label that so many of them labeled previous administrations with after Somalia (1993) and Beirut.

And by declaring victory, we close a chapter in the conflict (transition to a new phase in military speak), and that way we can say, "we were doing good up until that landmark event, after that, it isn't our fault because we already did our job." I believe that McCain, thanks to his "surge", will find a way to declare a victory as a pretense to begin a withdrawal of the majority of troops.

What will Obama/Hillary do? The opposite. Why? Because it is politics. Victory is good for McCain. A defeat is good for the Democrats who want to rub it in the face of the previous administration and so Dems can somewhat honestly say to themselves, "it isn't my fault what happens in Iraq after we leave because we never should have been there in the first place" and they can wash their hands of it.

"Politics, man... Politics" nameless character in Oliver Stone's movie Platoon.

Posted by: bg | May 16, 2008 8:26 PM

Rampant bloodshed? What have we got now? why is what we're going to get if we stay worse than what we'll get if we go? We can stay on as "advisors" FOREVER if you want, but it's not going to fix Iraq. Iraq is not going to get fixed. How long do you want to beat that dead horse? 2013? Try 2023, 2073. I'm so thrilled to be living in a country where people think this is a sensible way to run an empire.

Posted by: Fnarf | May 16, 2008 8:38 PM

The problem with all the Iraq discussions is that there is no right answer.

Iraq is the greatest military and foreign policy disaster in America's history. And, tragically, a recent Al Qaeda videotape got it exactly right. If we leave, chaos will result. If we stay, America will continue to bleed to death - militarily, economically, and psychically.

So who do you vote for? The old soldier who supported this war from day one, and who blathers on about "victory" when to this day no one can define that victory. And who says we might be there for 100 years.

Or someone who had the wisdom - in advance - to oppose this tragic misadventure, and to describe, in chilling detail, what might happen if we went to war with Iraq.

I vote for the guy who got it right to begin with, and at least will approach this national disaster with fresh eyes.

Posted by: Vic in Chicago | May 16, 2008 8:56 PM

"Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension."

Hmmm. No mention of that unpleasant interlude when all those heavily armed tourists dropped by and wrecked the place up. Nope, all of Iraq's problems are the result of various groups of Iraqis being unpleasant to one another. Honest, we were just walking by when this big fight broke out.

I have no love for the GOP but I hate watching people fail so utterly and completely.

Posted by: whowhat | May 16, 2008 11:11 PM

Strategic success in Iraq at this point is a net loss. It is a confirmation of a colonial project on a frankly 19th century model.

Orwellian logic was used to frame the Iraq war from the beginning, which is what makes it so distinct from Afghanistan.

So I guess it's no surprise that after Bush, Iraq will remain Orwellian. The clearest path to victory is a simple acceptance of defeat. The clearest path to defeat is the continued pursuit of victory.

Posted by: Bullsmith | May 16, 2008 11:39 PM


Yes, I agree, but you're overlooking the positive effects of Spin.

Posted by: Bleccchhh | May 17, 2008 12:20 AM

I've been wondering for some time if it is wise, simply as a matter of campaign strategy, for Sen. McCain to be trying to maintain a presence in every news cycle: trips to New Orleans, appearances on talk shows, speeches like this one.

All of these have points in their favor, to be sure. Would it not be wiser, though, for McCain to withdraw from the campaign trail for a month or so to rest, regroup, and consider his positions for the fall campaign as a whole, rather than spitting out positions on individual issues piecemeal as he is now doing?

With respect to Iraq, it is hard not to notice that his vision in this speech is all about what is happening in that country. I'll grant that, from the standpoint of American interests it's pretty important that Iraq not become a base for international terrorism. Apart from that, though, what about Iraq being a democracy, having professional security forces able to enforce its government's authority in every part of the country or even avoiding civil war is worth our spending $9 billion a month in borrowed money for another five years?

I have to say this is one subject about which the much maligned mainstream media seem closer to the mark than people like Phil Carter, who have been close to the Iraq war for many years. Mainstream media accounts of McCain's speech depicted him as moving very close to Sen. Obama's position, "being as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." I don't see the big gap between them Carter seems to. It's more a difference in attitude: reduction in American forces in Iraq would be suspended reluctantly and fearfully by Obama, with grim determination by McCain, the moment the political situation in that country appeared to be deteriorating. Big deal.

From my point of view deficiencies in perceiving reality are most noticeable in those who think what matters about Iraq is what happens in Iraq, not the cost of the American commitment there to this country. This is a pretty big group of Americans; it includes both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama, and as far as I can tell includes Phil Carter as well.

Posted by: Zathras | May 17, 2008 12:28 AM

McCain is using a logical fallacy "Appeal to the Future" to project a rosy scenario in 2013. He [and we] have no idea how things will shake out in Iraq.

Posted by: beebs | May 17, 2008 1:09 AM

The only folks here who really "get it" are bg and Vic in Chicago.

This is the worst self-inflicted wound in the history of our nation. We HAVE to get out of there, the sooner the better. We can't hang around, waiting for things to get better.

I have a nation, the United States of America, to worry about. If you worry about any other nation, I don't want to have anything to do with you. Move to that nation if you care that much about it. MY nation, the United States of America (just in case any of you forgot that) is dying before my eyes because a lot of people care about putting lipstick on a pig, about somehow legitimizing what an insane government, led by insane people has done.

Iraq is a pig. Stare it in the eyes. It is a pig, It will always be a pig. You cannot change that. Kiss it if you must, but don't ask me or the rest of my nation to do so. Go over there and do it yourself. I'm tired of paying for your fantasies.

What you people who think perpetuation of all of this is necessary are doing is sowing the seeds for the next American Revolution. How long do you think the American people--stupid and uninformed as they may be--are going to put up with you?

Posted by: Publius | May 17, 2008 1:49 AM

Iraq's future cannot be predicted. By trying to walk back his "hundred years" comment, McCain looks desperate.

Posted by: nerdoff | May 17, 2008 8:29 AM

It is true that we had no business going into Iraq however as Powell said, "If you break it you own it".We can not just walk away as we did in Vietnam in the early 70's.The democrats are wrong on this issue just as they were during the Vietnam war.

Posted by: syzito | May 17, 2008 9:53 AM

"...McCain might want to check his facts..."

Why? Is there anyone here who could seriously believe that facts, per se, mean much to a candidate like Sen. John McCain - he of the infamous "peaceful" stroll though Baghdad's marketplace?

Facts matter far less to a candidate like McCain than perceptions and appearances, and AFA this campaign is concerned, the perception and appearance of "victory" - or at least a spinnably-satisfactory outcome - in Iraq is paramount. Despite all the hyperbolic rhetoric, Iraq is, and will continue to be, a millstone around the neck of whoever GW Bush's successor will be. McCain's insistence on claiming that it's actually a flower-garland is understandable. Delusional, but understandable.

Posted by: Jay C | May 17, 2008 11:54 AM


If the democrats had not "been wrong" on Vietnam and that war had continued for however long you feel would have produced a good result, what exactly might that result have been?

How would the world be different and better now if the Vietnam war hadn't ended in 1975?

Posted by: Bullsmith | May 17, 2008 11:56 AM

"What you people who think perpetuation of all of this is necessary are doing is sowing the seeds for the next American Revolution. How long do you think the American people--stupid and uninformed as they may be--are going to put up with you?"

You talk about that as though it's a bad thing.

Posted by: srv | May 17, 2008 7:10 PM

syzito: "It is true that we had no business going into Iraq"

Maybe so, but that die was cast in 1991 by President Bush the elder with Desert Shield/Storm. We've had this "business" with Iraq ever since.

Moreover, the premise of President Bush the son's Iraq policy largely developed under President Clinton; President Clinton, 1998: "The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government . . . In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community, fear and hope. Now, in the new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past, but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace."

I don't quote President Clinton to make a partisan point. I quote President Clinton because I was a soldier when he said it. I recall as a young soldier talking about Iraq with the Gulf War veterans I worked with, the consensus was that going to Iraq was an inevitable matter for us of "when" and "how", not "if".

If not OIF, should we have sanctioned and contained Iraq forever? Or rather, the moment the mission changed from disarmament to indefinite containment, should we have ended our "business" with Iraq and restored Saddam's full sovereignty? We may lament the course we are on, but in doing so, we have to consider the alternatives as well. What do you do when all the choices are hard?

Posted by: Eric Chen | May 18, 2008 12:37 AM

Eric, the one thing you don't do is mislead the nation about what OIF is, why it's necessary, what the objectives are and how it is progressing.

Hard choices can't be made successfully when they don't acknowledge reality. As you rightly point out, all the reasons that led to war in 2003 had existed since the first gulf war. The only urgent factor demanding a war in March, sadly, was the mid-term election.

Posted by: Bullsmith | May 18, 2008 11:29 AM

This is funny. Phil, have you read your candidate's plan? He's going to lead an Iraqi national reconciliation!

Posted by: Thomas | May 19, 2008 11:58 AM

It would be an incredible blessing if leaving Iraq as quickly as practicable avoided the kinds of disasters that delaying America's exit from Viet Nam produced. By the time Nixon and Ford were done wasting an additional six years squandering American lives, credibility, and treasure to implement Tricky Dick's 1968 "plan" for quick Vietnam "victory", they'd unleashed a catastrophe that led to the deaths of millions of Cambodians, over and above the brutal casualties inflicted in Vietnam itself. McCain's "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" jingle, complete with senile lunatic giggles, ought to set off a few alarm bells for people who remember what expanding a bad war to engulf an entire region actually leads to.

What's McCain's "plan" again? Dropping far more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in WW II couldn't Americanize that country any more than "shock and awe" and "Mission Accomplished" could make an Indiana shopping mall out of Sadr City, despite McCain's lies. "Vietnamization" didn't produce a force capable of upholding a corrupt, unpopular regime any more than "building the Iraqi Army" has produced reliable troops in Basra.

On the other hand, the American exit from Vietnam didn't lead to regional countries falling like dominoes to Communist expansion. In fact, any visitor to Vietnam today will find a burgeoning capitalist economy and a developing middle class that will eventually change the government. He'll see the Vietnamese diaspora returning to take their place in developing a prosperous country that's a counter to Chinese influence in the region. And if he listens to the Vietnamese people, he'll hear that most of them see the "American War" as the last in a series of fights to expel foreign (first Chinese, then French, Japanese, French again, then American) occupiers, rather than a Cold War ideological struggle. Check public opinion polls of current Iraqi sentiment for parallels to that perception.

Obama's promise to leave Iraq as quickly as prudence allows is right for precisely the same reasons that finally exiting Viet Nam without wasting more resources on some hallucinatory "victory" was right. The initial underlying premise in both case was invalid; the simplistic framing of the conflicts in terms of a clash between ideologies was flawed; the attempt to frame an occupation as a liberation failed in the public perception in both countries; the apocalyptic risk of expanding the conflict in the region to the point where US forces will be so endangered that a man with McCain's judgment, temper, and giggle might feel empowered to resort to nuclear weapons is intolerable; the financial impact is proving as devastating today as it did in the '70's; and the fantasy of "instant Americanization" is at least as deluded in the desert as it was in the jungle.

America's best hope for a successful outcome in Iraq is to lay as serious a drubbing on the current radical-conservative senator from Arizona as they did on Barry Goldwater, to pray that Obama escapes the fate of Robert Kennedy, and to negotiate with Iran and Syria the way Nixon negotiated with Mao and Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev. If the Middle East develops after this war to the extent that Southeast Asia has progressed since the US belatedly pulled out of Vietnam, it will be because American voters rejected delusion before the chaos spiraled out of control.

Posted by: Karlo | May 19, 2008 6:18 PM

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