Thursday, June 19, 2008

John McCain was right

Say what you like about McCain's policy incoherence -- his major on-the-record flip-flops (Bush tax cuts, warrantless wiretapping, exempting the CIA from torture prohibitions, immigration reform, offshore drilling, etc. etc.), his open disavowals of supposedly current policy positions (not privatizing the existing social security program, eliminating the alternative minimum tax, refusing to bail out homeowners), his ventures into fantasyland (League of Democracies, offsetting hundreds of billions in tax cuts by eliminating earmarks).

The fact remains: he was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress. He was not just lucky-right; he was right because he understood the military requirements, and how a measure of military success might give the Iraqi government room to maneuver.

In hindsight, this good judgment was on full display in McCain's Socratic steering of Robert Gates during Gates' confirmation hearing on December 5, 2006 (my emphasis below):

I'd like to follow on just what Senator Levin said. We are not winning the war in Iraq; is that correct?

GATES: That is my view -- yes, sir.

MCCAIN: And, therefore, status quo is not acceptable?

GATES: That is correct, sir.

MCCAIN: I know you did a great deal of work with the Iraq Study Group, and there is a general consensus of opinion now, in hindsight, that we didn't have sufficient number of troops at the time of the invasion to control Iraq -- either Anbar Province, the looting, most importantly the weapons and ammunition depots that were looted at the time.

When anarchy prevails, it's very difficult to gain control of a country.

Do you agree that, at the time of the invasion, we didn't have sufficient troops to control the country, in hindsight?

GATES: Well, I had to deal with hindsight in some of the decisions that I've made, Senator McCain, and sometimes it's not very comfortable.

I suspect, in hindsight, some of the folks in the administration probably would not make the same decisions that they made.

GATES: And I think one of those is that there clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion to establish control over the country.

MCCAIN: And yet, at this particular point in time, when the suggestion is made, as the situation deteriorates and the status quo is not acceptable, that we reduce troops or, as General Abizaid said, that he had sufficient number of troops, in your study, when did we reach the point where we went from not having enough troops to having sufficient number of troops as the situation -- boots on the ground -- as the situation deteriorated?

That's a non sequitur that I have yet found to -- I'm unable to intellectually embrace.

GATES: Senator, I was a part of the Iraq Study Group during their education phase, I would say, and I resigned before they began their deliberations.

I would tell you that when we were in Iraq that we inquired of the commanders whether they had enough troops and whether a significant increase might be necessary. And I would say that the answer we received was that they thought they had adequate troops.

It seems to me that, as one considers all of the different options, in terms of a change of approach in Iraq and a change in tactics, that inquiring about this again is clearly something -- and it may be that a secretary of defense might get a more candid answer than an outside study group that was visiting them.

GATES: But we certainly -- the response that we received in Baghdad was that they had enough troops.

MCCAIN: Then the second and third questions should have been asked, and that is: Why is the conditions and situation continuing to deteriorate and not improve, if you have sufficient assets and people in order to get the job done -- which we now agree is not satisfactory?

One of the reasons given is it would be too great a strain on the military today; that we don't have sufficient active duty and Guard forces.

There were some of us, three and a half years ago, that said we needed to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. And the answer was: Well, that would take a couple of years.

Well, years have passed, and we still haven't got -- and we're still putting an enormous strain on the active duty and Guard forces.

Do you believe that we need to increase the size of the Marine Corps and the Army?

GATES: Senator, if I'm confirmed, I'm very open to the possibility and the necessity of an increase in the end-strength of the Army.

However, first, because we have 150,000 troops in the field, and we have a regular Army of about a half a million, and a Guard and Reserve of about another half a million, I would like to, if I'm confirmed, to first of all ensure for myself that the other 350,000 troops in the regular Army are doing what we want them to be doing and that they are all needed in the roles that they are in as a way of making sure that before we increase the end strength that we're using the strength we have in the way we ought to be.

GATES: But if the answer to that question is that's about the way it ought to be, that those troops are deployed in the way we want them deployed, then I'm very open to the possibility of an increase in the end strength.

MCCAIN: Well, again, I think when you look at -- we are living in a very dangerous world, whether you look at Iran, North Korea, the crisis in Lebanon as we speak -- the list goes on and on -- it'd be very difficult for us to envision us being capable of handling another contingency, given the fact that our military leaders are saying it would be too great a strain on the military and the Guard even to put additional troops into Iraq.

I hope you'll look at it very seriously.

Mr. Secretary, finally, General Zinni, who is highly respected by this committee, who was former head of the CENTCOM, who was speaking of Prime Minister Maliki, said, quote: "You can't put pressure on a wounded guy. There's a premise that the Iraqis are not doing enough now, that there's a capability that they've not employed or used. I'm not so sure they are capable of stopping sectarian violence."

Dr. Gates, I don't think they're capable either. And I think political solutions are breed (sic) by stability. And if you have military instability, it's very hard to come up with a political solution.

And just about everybody I know who looks at these plans for partition, for withdrawal to bases outside of Iraq or bases inside of Iraq believe that a chaotic situation would ensue.

I think this is -- I agree with most expert that this is our last chance to save this situation. And unless we stabilize conditions on the ground, I think it's going to be very difficult to get the kind of political solution that all of us seek.

Recently, I saw this proposal to move the Marines out of Anbar Province into Baghdad.

MCCAIN: What do we say to the families of those young people who died in the first and second battle of Fallujah when we abandon it to terrorist organizations again?

I wish you every success. I know that all of us on this committee and in this country have nothing but the interests of our nation's security and the men and women who serve it as our highest priority.

And I hope you will help us gain consensus so that, as a nation, we can move forward and make sure that the American people are not subjected to more sacrifice as a result of the failures that we've experienced in the past in this conflict.

And again, I thank you for serving, Doctor.

On three points at least McCain's logic is impressive: 1) if we didn't have enough troops to stabilize the country at invasion's end, how could we be said to have enough on the ground as the situation was deteriorating (in fall 2006)? 2) if we do have enough, why aren't we winning? and 3) stability will breed political progress, not vice versa.

In December 2006, other answers to 1) and 2) seemed logical to many (including a very nonexpert me): there were not enough troops to win with, but a modest increase was unlikely to improve the situation, and our occupying forces might be doing more harm than good. Those answers were wrong. McCain's was right. It wasn't luck. In this case, he knew what was needed, and he staked his political career on it.

P.S. I don't think it should be necessary at this point to argue that the situation in Iraq has improved markedly on every front. The Economist summarizes well:
Yet it is now plain that over the past several months, while Americans have been distracted by their presidential primaries, many things in Iraq have at long last started to go right.

This improvement goes beyond the fall in killing that followed General David Petraeus's “surge”. Iraq's government has gained in stature and confidence. Thanks to soaring oil prices it is flush with money. It is standing up to Iraq's assorted militias and asserting its independence from both America and Iran. The overlapping wars—Sunni against American, Sunni against Shia and Shia against Shia—that harrowed Iraq after the invasion of 2003 have abated. The country no longer looks in imminent danger of flying apart or falling into everlasting anarchy. In September 2007 this newspaper supported the surge not because we had faith in Iraq but only in the desperate hope that the surge might stop what was already a bloodbath from becoming even worse (see article). The situation now is different: Iraq is still a mess, but something approaching a normal future for its people is beginning to look achievable.

Related post:
Can Obama cope with success in Iraq?

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