In the Arena

The McCain Speech

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No doubt, John McCain’s attempt to lay out the goals of his prospective presidency was a worthy and honorable effort–but there was something deeply hilarious about it as well. Take his paragraph about Iraq:

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.

And the tooth fairy will spread giggle-juice throughout the land, and the Mets will win the World Series and I will lose 20 pounds while continuing to consume vast quantities of Chinese and Italian food.

Let’s leave aside the transparent political crassness of this–actually, let’s not. Clearly, McCain is trying to walk away from his support for a permanent (100 year) military presence. Indeed, the Senator’s new dovery is undermined by the parameters for “victory” that he sets. As I’ve argued in the past, it is not wise to lay out timetables and end dates. The pace of withdrawal should be left to the commanders in the field, but it’s the job of the President to set broad strategic goals. Some of McCain’s goals are reasonable. We should be able to defeat the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq that are currently hunkered down in Mosul. But others are fanciful, at best. Militias disbanded? The notion of trying to disband the Mahdi Army, which has stood down–for the time being–in Basra and is continuing to fight in Sadr City–remains a fool’s errand. And would McCain disband the Kurdish pesh merga? I don’t think so. (In fact, he steadfastly refuses to notice that much of the backbone for the Iraqi Army is provided by the Badr Corps, yet another militia.)

The best reaction I’ve seen to McCain’s Iraq fantasia comes from an old friend of his, Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations:

I think John McCain has been one of the most important voices on national security policy for many years now, so it really surprises me to see him giving speeches like the one today that are almost in “lala” land. These unsupported generalizations and predictions that he would have scoffed at as the old John McCain. Lets just take a couple of examples, one is what he says about the future Iraq. He says most of the troops will be gone in four years, at that time there will be relative security in the country and that it will be a democracy. But we have no idea how that is to come about. It certainly isn’t coming about by the present polices of the Bush administration and the speech gives every indication he’ll continue those policies and so it’s kind of a wild eyed, unsupported prediction.

The rest of the speech is more of the same. Many of the goals McCain offers are admirable. I like the paragraphs about education and the environment. It’s good to see that despite the camouflage of tougher language, he hasn’t caved to his party’s base on immigration (although we’ll see how long that lasts, given the Libertarian threat posed by Bob Barr). I think it would be fun to have the President answer questions in Congress as the British Prime Minister does in Parliament. But McCain’s continued support for tax relief for the wealthy, and his willful disregard of the income disparities that have become far more pronounced–indeed, encouraged–during the Bush Administration, are a fundamental abdication of the responsibilities of the next President. And the ridiculous lack of detail that mark the speech make it hard to take the thing seriously.