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


John McCain announces timetable for withdrawal from Iraq!

Well, actually, he did no such thing, and probably will never do any such thing, but this morning, in an interesting speech (and crappy companion commercial) dreamcasting ahead to the year 2013, the presumptive Republican nominee cleverly set bait for the national media to undo his most enduring campaign blunder to date: Letting slip the bedrock truism that McCain sees no downside whatsoever to having U.S. troops stationed in Iraq in the year 2109.

The Arizona senator's ongoing political challenge this year is to maintain his strong support and feelings of empathetic good will from independents and Democrats who hate the war (and the mindset behind it) that he so adamantly supports and even embodies. It's a tough nut to crack, trying to convince people who hate George W. Bush that your foreign policy is more "moderate" than the president's when in fact it has been more radical and interventionist for a full decade running, but McCain is banking on the power of suggestion, and above all the remarkable potency of the benefit of the doubt, to obscure his rock-solid neo-conservative credentials and expansionist foreign policy.

Here's how he did it today. By January 2013, after the first McCain term, he says:

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.

That's the sole basis of the "McCain announces departure date" interpretation. It doesn't take a cynic to note that this is not remotely a tangible roadmap for drawing down forces, but rather an "I have a dream" laundry list of wonderful things he'd love to see. In fact, his speech today is chock full of such locutions, covering events roughly as likely as President Bush's Mission to Mars. Some other examples of McCain's wishcasting:

* The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants.

* Concerted action by the great democracies of the world has persuaded a reluctant Russia and China to cooperate in pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and North Korea to discontinue its own.

* After exercising my veto several times in my first year in office, Congress has not sent me an appropriations bill containing earmarks for the last three years.

* U.S. tariffs on agricultural imports have been eliminated and unneeded farm subsidies are being phased out.

* Public education in the United States is much improved thanks to the competition provided by charter and private schools.

It sure would be pretty to think so! And obviously, it's better to have a prospective president mouthing platitudes about free agricultural trade than a political hack demagoguing a lousy farm bill. But as concerns the policy question du jour—and McCain's political necessity of scrubbing the word "neo-con" from his resume, without actually changing any of his neo-conservative policies or foreign policy team—the 2013 drawdown from Iraq should be seen as the strategic and process-free campaign cheap-talk that it is.

And how's it working out? By a quick look at the headlines, Mission Accomplished!

McCain sees Iraq combat over, U.S. troops home before 2013

Troops home from Iraq by 2013: McCain

McCain Sets a Date

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.