Thursday, January 10, 2008

McCain and Lieberman's Bridge to Nowhere

John McCain and Joe Lieberman's paean to the surge (subscription required) in today's Wall Street Journal is not quite a victory jig. It does not crow. It does not deny the dilemma of having to draw down troops over the next half year without any signs of political progress in Iraq. The tone is only mutedly triumphal

But McCain and Lieberman don't answer any important questions either. How can the reduction in violence be maintained with fewer U.S. troops? What can we do to foster a functioning government on the ground after a year of failure on this front as marked as the success in reducing violence? Finally, most crucially, what is the "victory" which we're told in the closer "must remain our objective in this long, hard and absolutely necessary war"?

McCain provided a key part of his own answer in a different context, telling a questioner that our troops may be in Iraq for decades. "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea 50 years or so...that would be fine with me." Problem is, our history in those countries provides no obvious model for Iraq. In both cases, our military presence was a function of the Cold War -- justified not by continuing internal instability but by our geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union. Is McCain suggesting that it may take decades for Iraq to achieve stability, or that we need a permanent military presence in the Arab world, perhaps as a counterweight to Iran? If the former, maintaining stability in a non-functioning state is far different from maintaining a military deterrent to outside invasion (Korea) or boosting our own global military capability (Japan); in both cases, our troops were lodged in stable, prosperous countries. On the other hand, to suggest that the U.S. might need troops in Iraq as a counterweight to Iran is a sign of "Cold War Withdrawal Syndrome" -- the neoconservative craving for a Soviet-scale enemy against which to project American power and America's role of global bulwark against an Evil Empire.

And indeed, the McCain-Lieberman manifesto indulges the ideological shadow puppetry that gathers up disparate forces of different kinds of Islamic militancy and projects them as an Empire-sized monolith:
had we heeded [opponents of the surge's] calls for retreat, Iraq today would be a country in chaos: a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by al Qaeda and Iran....

Whereas, a year ago, al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched in Anbar province and Baghdad, now the forces of Islamist extremism are facing their single greatest and most humiliating defeat since the loss of Afghanistan in 2001
al Qaeda. Iran. al Qaeda in Iran. Forces of Islamist extremism. All one? It is true that our botched occupation created a toxic brew in which Saddam loyalists, external al Qaeda agents, and Shiite militias accepting varying degrees of support (though probably rarely control) from Iran could all contribute to violent anarchy in one place. But it was the very failure to distinguish between utterly different and often warring 'forces of Islamist extremism" that got us into McCain's projected 100 year occupation to begin with. And the most dangerous of those forces -- al Qaeda Central -- has enjoyed a resurgence in Afghanistan/Pakistan that's more germane to our security than the "humiliating defeat" of their proxies in Iraq. That remarkable comeback would not have happened had we maintained focus on Afghanistan

To recognize that sad fact does not point a way out. But neither do McCain and Lieberman.

It won't be possible to judge whether the surge has 'worked' until we see whether the progress of the last year can be maintained as our forces are reduced, as all acknowledge they must be. But neither will we ever know whether the concerted diplomatic effort recommended by the Iraq Study Group - accompanied by the first stages of a phased withdrawal - would have moved Iraq more quickly toward developing a functioning government of its own.

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