"[A] central battleground in the battle against al-Qaeda is in Iraq today."
"We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says. I've seen the facts on the ground."
- John McCain, March 25, 2008, according to an AP story in USA Today
John McCain has plainly said that his fate in November's election may very well be tied directly to his stance in Iraq. Namely, his view that the surge has been successful, and that the United States needs to stay in Iraq, otherwise, al-Qaeda will win.
There are two major problems with McCain's basic premise. The average voter may be surprised to learn who we are really fighting and that it's not so easy to define "winning."
From listening to the statements of pro-war Republicans, you would think that the U.S. military was primarily fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. That's why you get statements like McCain's assertion set out above (and this has nothing to do with his gaffe, claiming that Shiite-controlled Iran was training Sunni-affiliated al-Qaeda in Iraq). Thanks to the way the Republicans have framed the issue, the weakness of Democrats in getting the facts out, and the uselessness of the media that merely parrots what the administration says about the war, most voters probably believe we are primarily fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. That is completely false.
A recent study found that less than 4 percent of attacks on U.S. troops were committed by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
McCain loves to talk about al-Qaeda in Iraq. Last week in London, McCain said, according to an AFP/Yahoo! article, that the issue in Iraq is "whether we withdraw and have Al-Qaeda win and announce to the world that they have won and things collapse there, or do we see this strategy through to success?"
If only 4 percent of attacks in Iraq are by al-Qaeda, how is it that al-Qaeda would be winning anything in Iraq? But McCain and the Republicans know that al-Qaeda is the all-purpose scare tactic that can win arguments where logic would fail. Want to stay in Iraq? Well, tell the people it's al-Qaeda! That will get them to let us stay! Everyone is afraid of al-Qaeda!
So if we're not fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, who are we fighting? Well, essentially, we are taking sides in a series of civil wars. Not only are Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other, but the Shiite government is in conflict with other Shiites, including the Mahdi Army led by Moqtada al-Sadr.
Which raises my second point. What is victory? Bush and McCain both like to play the "refuse to lose" card in Iraq. That's another effective way to convince voters to support something that otherwise defies logic. Ask Americans if they want to lose, and, of course, they'll respond, "Hell no! I want to win!" Even if they don't know what constitutes winning and losing.
This isn't World War II, which had armies and clearly defined objectives. Hitler was deposed and France was free of German occupation, so we won. Cue the celebrations. There is nothing like that in Iraq. The country is a complicated mix of groups (Shia, Sunni and Kurd) and sub-groups (sects within these groups) with centuries-old grievances and battles, not to mention the feelings of entitlement or payback (depending on which Iraqi you are talking to) after 24 years of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule.
Maybe, just maybe, if there was an Iraqi government that was free of these sectarian battles, there would be something to support. But the Maliki government has demonstrated that it is more interested in asserting Shiite power and punishing those who prospered under Hussein's dictatorship than it is in moving the country forward in any kind of unified way.
So, essentially, all of these groups are fighting with each other, and our soldiers are in the middle, protecting certain of the combatants, and paying others not to fight. All while we send hundreds of billions of dollars into this misguided war effort, and suffer 4,000 American military deaths with tens of thousands more wounded.
The whole selling point of the surge was that if we brought down the violence, the government could do the reconciliation work that would lead to a calm, free Iraq. Well, our military did its job and lowered the violence for a while. Can't we call that a victory? Can't we say, "Hey, we overthrew a dictator, held elections, helped lessen the violence a bit, and gave the Iraqi government a chance to bring the people together. Mission accomplished."
Because if we're going to depend on the Iraqis putting aside hundreds of years of blood feuds so that we can say we are winners, that's a lousy bet. Virtually no significant movement has taken place in political reconciliation. The violence is escalating again, with Sadr's followers and the government clashing again, bringing talk of the need for a "re-surge." Only, we can't sustain the first surge, with the military stretched dangerously thin as it is.
Today McCain said that leaving Iraq would be "an act of betrayal." I find that fascinating. Nobody betrayed the American people more than George W. Bush for foisting a costly, devastating, misguided, poorly planned, unnecessary war on the American people that has only served to weaken our country, hurt our reputation, and make us less safe. To support a continuation of that policy would be the real betrayal.
I would have no problem with McCain succeeding or failing in November based on his Iraq policy. Only I fear that voters won't have all the facts when they make that decision. There may be no real "winning" in Iraq, but come the general election, there is clearly one way to be victorious: We are successful if John McCain is not the next president. McCain thinks we are winning in Iraq. Wow. I'd hate to see what losing looks like.