McCain's Phony Withdrawal

When tomorrow's papers tell you McCain has set a 2013 "timetable" for leaving Iraq, don't believe it for a second

(Page 2 of 2)

The funny thing is, as routinely happens with our straight-talking friend, the press has buried the foreign policy lede by skipping over McCain's interventionist bluster in the very same speech. For instance, did you know that President McCain intends to lead NATO forces into Darfur, and use that as a stepping-stone to various humanitarian interventions?

[T]he United States, acting in concert with a newly formed League of Democracies, applied stiff diplomatic and economic pressure that caused the government of Sudan to agree to a multinational peacekeeping force, with NATO countries providing logistical and air support, to stop the genocide that had made a mockery of the world's repeated declaration that we would "never again" tolerant such inhumanity. Encouraged by the success, the League is now occupied with using the economic power and prestige of its member states to end other gross abuses of human rights such as the despicable crime of human trafficking.

Note here the process difference from the Iraq quote above: Not only is he wishing how something might be true, he's spelling out the procedural road map as well.

As George Will pointed out in yet another recent scathing critique of McCain, the "never surrender" candidate has pledged to stay the course in Iraq until "the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state"—a perfect recipe for the 100-year occupation he's so furiously back-pedaling from—while vowing to use force against Iran if the mullahs develop nukes. The question Will wants answered, and the rest of us should too, is not "is it true you are more moderate than George W. Bush?", but (in Will's words) "how long is your list of nations eligible for 'rogue-state rollback'?"

McCain is lobbying hard, and with some success, to be seen as an "Eisenhower Republican"—a doctrine-straddling "moderate" between idealists (a.k.a. "neo-cons") and Henry Kissinger-style realists (in his March attempt to square his foreign policy circle McCain uncorked the marvelously nonsensical new term "realistic idealist").

The problem is, aside from saying that as a veteran he "hates" war—a preamble that he used to great effect in his March 1999 speech unveiling rogue-state rollback—and staking out some stylistic differences with his predecessor (today's example: "I will not subvert the purpose of legislation I have signed by making statements that indicate I will enforce only the parts of it I like"), the candidate continues to advocate and pine for interventions that would make even Eisenhower blush.

The strain between these two incompatible positions is beginning to show. In a very long Matt Bai profile of McCain's foreign policy in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the senator kicks off the interview even before Bai asks a question with an irritable five-minute rant about how he is not so a warmonger, that he's really an Eisenhower Republican, and that he's taken close counsel from Henry Kissinger for 30 years. "Anybody is free to write whatever they want and form whatever opinions they want to form," McCain tells Bai. "But facts are facts. And the fact is that I know war, and I know the tragedy of war. And no one hates war more than veterans."

But then, later in the interview, when Bai asks him about possible U.S. interventionism into such strategically unimportant yet undeniably dictatorial countries as Zimbabwe and Burma, McCain laments that a Zimbabwe invasion would be seen as "colonialism," and that "I'm just not sure the American people would support a military engagement in Burma, no matter how justified the cause." As Bai comments:

Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn't make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, "Why intervene?" McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, "Why not?"

Will President McCain draw down combat troops from Iraq by 2013? Only if Iraq becomes the kind of prosperous and stable democracy that few if any humans are predicting will happen in the foreseeable future. In other words, when cows fly. Americans who vote for McCain based on that promise will surely get the president they deserve.

Matt Welch is the editor-in-chief of reason and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Does Republican presidential hopeful John McCain really plan on withdrawing troops from Iraq by 2013?

    Answer: No. So, five more years of death and sorrow for American and Iraqi families, and that's just the beginning.
    Anyone who votes this turd into office is no friend of mine.

  • ||

    As I understood his comments (paraphrasing heavily here), he thought we should be able to get Iraq to a point where our troops aren't needed anymore by 2013, so we could withdraw them at that point.

    I don't think he made an unconditional promise to withdraw them regardless of conditions on the ground. And I don't think Hillary or even Obama, regardless of what they may imply on the stump, would do so either. Both know that another "evacuation of Saigon" type situation where we withdraw under fire would doom their political career and legacy.

  • ||

    Korean War 1950-1953 and we are still there 55 years later.

    US-Nippo war 1941-1945 and we are still there.

    US-Iraq war 2003-2008(2013) unless we pull completely out ala Vietnam we will be there when my grandchildren are old enough to vote.

  • Matt Welch||

    RC Dean -- Quite right: He didn't make that a "promise" at all; he just threw the words "Iraq" and "2013" and "come" and "home" in the same speech, and allowed the media to take it from there.

  • Colin||

    The thing is, no one is going to believe him.

    And it doesn't really matter. Even if he somehow pulls the upset there's likely to be huge Democratic gains in Congress. His veto won't hold out for long.

  • Old Bull Lee||

    I've been getting this vague impression that Matt isn't much of McCain fan...

    You're right though. He doesn't need to say what the public wants to hear - he can just say something really generic, and the media loves him so much they'll spin it the most populist way they can.

  • Nolan||

    A Jamie Kelly post with no profanity is like a joe post with no smugness. It just ain't right.

  • Kolohe||

    You know, maybe its like how a starving dog appreciates table scraps but I liked this snipet of the linked speech:

    "I am presumptuous enough to think I would be a good President, but not so much that I believe I can govern by command. Should I forget that, Congress will, of course, hasten to remind me"

    It seems to indicate (even if its lip service) a depature from the executive uber alles notion of the current white house.

  • ||

    Is it as phoney as the Dems promise, if they got control of the house and senate, to pull out the troops in 2006?

  • Kolohe||

    Well, then I read this:

    "the Iraqi Security Force is professional and competent; "

    This goal is simply not achievable in 4 years. A professional military takes a generation to produce. To wit: professional military = professional NCO's training the next gen of professional NCO's in a self sustaining reaction. This is a min of a twenty year project.

  • Kolohe||

    Another from the speech:

    "The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced but not eliminated."

    Now, this goal is understated. There is no reason why the threat from a resurgent Taliban should not be eliminated by five years from now. Spring 2013 would represent at least 11 years from when the Taliban was toppled. Worrying about the Taliban in 2013 would be like worrying about resurgent fascism in western Europe in 1955.

  • jj||

    And it doesn't really matter. Even if he somehow pulls the upset there's likely to be huge Democratic gains in Congress. His veto won't hold out for long.

    When has the majority democrat controlled senate and house voted to oppose ANY of the Bush abuses (war, patriot act, etc.)?

  • ||

    Both know that another "evacuation of Saigon" type situation where we withdraw under fire would doom their political career and legacy.

    Phooey. They could do it on Day One and go down as heroes. The longer they wait, the more spineless they'll be perceived.

  • ||

    dammit...need to preview...

  • ||

    A Jamie Kelly post with no profanity is like a joe post with no smugness. It just ain't right.

    What the fuck are you talking about, you cum-gurgler?

  • ||

    R C Dean:
    I don't think Hillary or even Obama, regardless of what they may imply on the stump, would do so either. Both know that another "evacuation of Saigon" type situation where we withdraw under fire would doom their political career and legacy.

    Obama has promised an immediate pullout, and I believe he would keep that promise. Quoting from the 24 minute mark of the video,

    Google questioner: You're notable in this campaign for your steadfast opposition to the Iraq war. On the assumption that you're elected president, on day one you'll walk in and the war will probably still be on. We know your view that the war was a mistake. But here it is: you're at the desk. What are you going to do?

    Obama: I will call in the joint chiefs of staff, my secretary of state nominee, my national security advisor nominee, and they will have a new mission which is to end this war. And it appears based on the advice that I've gotten from military commanders that we can safely bring out 1-2 brigades per month. At that pace we will have our combat troops out in 16 months.

    We will not have permanent bases in Iraq and we will not have combat operations in Iraq. The only mission that I will allow will be to protect our embassy and our civilian personnel - diplomats, humanitarian workers - and we will have a narrowly targeted mission of if there are terrorist camps that are amassing in Iraq that we have a strike capability.


    I really love the candidates@google series, by the way. The hour-long talks/interviews give you a much better insight into the candidates than you could get from a stump speech.

  • ||

    The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role.

    At that pace we will have our combat troops out in 16 months.

    It's time to play Spot the Magic Word.

  • Travis||

    "The thing is, no one is going to believe him."

    I live in America what country do you live in Colin?

    Every fucking Republican is going to be saying John McCain is going to have us out of Iraq by 2013. America is sealing its own fate electing imperialist warmongers like Bush & McCain I'm glad I won't be around 100 years from now when American's find out paybacks a bitch.

  • ||

    Obama has promised an immediate pullout, and I believe he would keep that promise.

    I know he has. I don't believe he'd keep it. If we withdraw forces too quickly before the Iraqis can pick up the slack, Iranian proxies, whatever's left of AQ, you name it, will drench the streets with blood trying to fill the power vacuum.

    Its possible Obama is stupid enough to keep to his inane schedule even in the face of mounting catastrophe, but I seriously doubt it.

  • Quigley||

    Isn't McCain's view of 2013 the same as Bush's vision of what the close of 2003 was supposed to be?

  • JohnD||

    There is a name for people like Travis who call Bush and McCain "Warmongers".

    The name is appeaser. Another name is yellow bellied sniviling marxist coward that would sell out his country for 20 pieces of silver.

  • whollycow||

    The name is appeaser. Another name is yellow bellied sniviling marxist coward that would sell out his country for 20 pieces of silver.

    wait... who's selling out our country? last i checked, bush and his pals falsified information to sell a 3 trillion dollar 'adventure' to the world.

  • ||

    JohnD, When Judas sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he sold out a guy who refused to support resistance against an occupying power (Rome). If Jesus was alive today and in this country, he wouldn't fight back if Islamic terrorists literally took over our country and its government. Judas should be your hero.

  • Lee||

    noun:
    a person who advocates, endorses, or tries to precipitate war.


    Technically, George Bush is a Warmonger by Definition. No one was taking measures appease Saddam because he wasn't a threat. As for marxist, I think it was the Communists who had a foreign policy of propping up governments that shared their ideology. Something the NeoConservatives have borrowed, except it's not all the workers of the world unite. It's all the democratic citizens of the world unite. A person in Burma is the same in as in Columbia or America. We must Free Them! Liberty by the sword. It's the only just thing to do!

  • Eluril||

    Why doesn't Reason just come out in favor of Barack Obama then? I am sick and tired of libertarians trouncing all over Mccain's comments and other conservatives while placating the HARD LEFT views of Barack Obama.

  • Douglas Gray||

    Recently, former army sergeant Kristofer Goldsmith told a half-dozen US lawmakers and scores of people who packed into a small hearing room of "lawless murders, looting and the abuse of countless Iraqis.", explaining why he and numerous other vets do not support the presense of our troops there.

    Most of the violence in Iraq is fueled by the presence of the foreign occupier. We are afraid to admit that if we pull out right now, things will be no worse.

    "The enemy" as George Bush puts it, is made up of, not terrorists, not El-Quaeda, but what the CIA calls POI's "pissed off Iraqis".

    The notion that the "Security Forces" are unified in defending the populace against "the enemy" is a fiction of Bush and McCains brains. It's just not the reality.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Kolohe:

    "This goal is simply not achievable in 4 years. A professional military takes a generation to produce. To wit: professional military = professional NCO's training the next gen of professional NCO's in a self sustaining reaction. This is a min of a twenty year project."

    OK, that is true, but context matters.

    First, you do not need the Iraqi SF to be on par with the Americans; it is enough that they are reasonably on par with the regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Syria come to mind).

    Second, the Iraqi soldiers are not trained in peacetime, but in conflict. That means that they should absorb knowledge more quickly than people in boot camp somewhere in Nevada, where the last war was with the Apache tribe in 1890. In the boot camp, if you do not learn quickly, you might have problems with the sergeant. On the battlefield, you learn quickly or you die.

    Remember how the Soviet Red Army raised their fighting qualities between 1940 (when they had problems defeating the Finnish) and 1943, when they crushed German Panzer divisions at Kursk. That was not a miracle, but a question of necessity and survival.

    Last, Iraqis do not really build their army from total zero. Some older officers do have some experience from the Iraq-Iran war, and that was a hard paid experience.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Post scriptum

    There is at least one high-quality military force with long tradition in Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmergas are not greenhorns by any means, they used to fight Saddam very effectively, finally wrestling self-control for Kurdistan from his hands.

    Though they cannot and wouldn't act as "saviors" for the rest of the country, they cannot be ignored either.

  • ccxbn b||

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