Friday, January 18, 2008

Separating fact from fiction: John McCain's real war record

Since my last post on GOP prez hopeful John McCain attracted a couple McCainbots, let's see what we can do today. In making sense of McCain's victory in the New Hampshire primary, in which a goodly proportion of his voters were under the mistaken impression that he would somehow be interested in ending the Iraq War, I am drawn to P.T. Barnum's famous line about a sucker being born every minute. If anything, McCain seems to be priming his audience with the idea that Iraq will be a US colony for at least a century. That doesn't exactly strike me as someone committed to ending the occupation at all. The dude was one of the biggest advocates of the "surge" last year, if one needs reminding. As Mark Benjamin (no relation to me) reminds us, McCain has been quite the war hawk all along:
During the run-up to the war, McCain argued vociferously in favor of an invasion, quoting the logic of Vice President Dick Cheney. "As Vice President Cheney has said of those who argue that containment and deterrence are working, the argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is," McCain said in a saber-rattling speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Feb. 13, 2003. "We just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it," he added sarcastically.
In the period leading up to the war, McCain sounded, at times, less like a straight-talking maverick and more like the neoconservative former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. "It's going to send the message throughout the Middle East that democracy can take hold in the Middle East," McCain said about the war on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" on Feb. 21, 2003. He seemed to think Iraq would be a cakewalk, predicting that the war "will be brief."
He also sounded like Wolfowitz's boss, Donald Rumsfeld, as far back as late 2002. Despite all his talk now about more troops, as the war drums built toward a crescendo, McCain argued that better technology meant fewer troops were going to be needed in Iraq. "Our technology, particularly air-to-ground technology, is vastly improved," McCain told CNN's Larry King on Dec. 9, 2002. "I don't think you're going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991." It was pure Rumsfeld.
But even back then, not everyone was so sure that the war would be brief or that Rumsfeld's smaller force would be sufficient. On Feb. 25, 2003, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki famously warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that "several hundred thousand" soldiers would be needed to take and hold Iraq. Rumsfeld publicly disagreed with Shinseki's estimate.
If McCain shared Shinseki's position, he didn't say so at the time. "I have no qualms about our strategic plans," he told the Hartford Courant in a March 5 article, just before the invasion. "I thought we were very successful in Afghanistan."
And while he was quiet about Shinseki, McCain shouted down some naysayers who proved to be much more prescient than he. On the cusp of the invasion, West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd took to the Senate floor on March 19, 2003, to denounce the war. It was a speech that predicted the future debacle so accurately that it now seems that the senior senator from West Virginia had a crystal ball in his Senate desk. "We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many," Byrd warned. "After the war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America's image around the globe."
McCain pounced, taking to the Senate floor to predict that "when the people of Iraq are liberated, we will again have written another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America."
By June 2003, McCain was still generally in the "Mission Accomplished" camp. "I have said a long time that reconstruction of Iraq would be a long, long, difficult process," he told Fox News on June 11. "But the conflict, the major conflict is over ... The regime change is accomplished."
It was during an August 2003 visit to Iraq that McCain seems to have realized that the Iraq tale was not unfolding as another chapter in the glorious history of the United States. (It is not entirely clear when he came to the realization, since the McCain campaign failed to return my call asking for a staffer to go through this history with me.) While he was in Iraq, insurgents used a truck bomb to blow up the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, killing U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. McCain told NPR on Aug. 29, 2003, that "we need more troops" in Iraq. "When I say more troops, we need a lot more of certain skills, such as civil affairs capability, military police. We need more linguists," McCain added.
And McCain was not always sour on Rumsfeld. As late as May 12, 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, McCain was asked on "Hannity & Colmes" whether Rumsfeld could still be effective in his job. "Yes, today I do and I believe he's done a fine job," McCain responded. "He's an honorable man."
It is true that by late 2004, McCain was down on the secretary of defense, telling the press that he had "no confidence" in Rumsfeld. But the clips show that he stopped short of calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, saying it was the president's prerogative to pick his own national security team.
To be fair, McCain has been calling for more troops for years now. And political experts do think McCain's argument on the surge may still gain some traction among GOP voters. "We still have about two-thirds of Republicans who support the effort in Iraq," explained Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown. "It certainly would work with the Republican audience he is appealing to." That may depend, in part, on the memories of the people in that audience.
The fact is that if McCain had any criticism about the Iraq War and occupation at all, it has simply to do with the number of troops involved - McCain wanted more, much more than the neoconmen running the White House. Otherwise, let's face it - McCain toed the party line from the get-go. He portrayed the Iraq War as something glorious, in which the Iraqis would be thanking the US. He shouted down anyone who dared to oppose that damned war. If he had any criticisms of Rumsfeld, they were relatively mild ones - personally I'd say that any criticism that doesn't make mention of hauling Rumsfeld's sorry ass to the Hague to face a war crimes tribunal is way too mild. Oh, and let's not forget, that McCain is hot to get into a war with Iran (that little "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran" ditty he sang a few months ago to the tune "Barbara Ann" should offer something of a hint). If the GOP voters want an antiwar candidate, they're pretty much stuck with Ron Paul (and given some of Paul's baggage, he should be the ideal candidate for that party's faithful). McCain, on the other hand, is not the real deal if you're sour on the war.

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