Surge Overkill


John McCain is set to deliver a speech at 11:30 Mountain Daylight Time arguing (according to the prepared remarks) that his support for the surge in Iraq qualifies him to be commander in chief, while opposition to it disqualifies Barack Obama.

We both knew the politically safe choice was to support some form of retreat. All the polls said the "surge" was unpopular. Many pundits, experts and policymakers opposed it and advocated withdrawing our troops and accepting the consequences. I chose to support the new counterinsurgency strategy backed by additional troops ? which I had advocated since 2003, after my first trip to Iraq. Many observers said my position would end my hopes of becoming president. I said I would rather lose a campaign than see America lose a war. My choice was not smart politics. It didn't test well in focus groups. It ignored all the polls. It also didn't matter. The country I love had one final chance to succeed in Iraq. The new strategy was it. So I supported it. […]

Senator Obama made a different choice. He not only opposed the new strategy, but actually tried to prevent us from implementing it. He didn't just advocate defeat, he tried to legislate it. When his efforts failed, he continued to predict the failure of our troops. As our soldiers and Marines prepared to move into Baghdad neighborhoods and Anbari villages, Senator Obama predicted that their efforts would make the sectarian violence in Iraq worse, not better.

And as our troops took the fight to the enemy, Senator Obama tried to cut off funding for them. He was one of only 14 senators to vote against the emergency funding in May 2007 that supported our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would choose to lose in Iraq in hopes of winning in Afghanistan. But had his position been adopted, we would have lost both wars.

I'll let smarter and/or more partisan folk debate the comparative merits, successes and failures of the surge (which I, for the record, opposed, though I'm glad it turned out better than I thought). What interests me here is McCain's classic trait of personalizing all policy debates. If you disagree with him, it must be because you are dishonorable, and placing politics ahead of country. He, on the other hand, continues to be motivated by a love of country more pure than Karen Carpenter's singing voice, at a severe political cost that only a torture-surviving stoic would be willing to bear.

There is plenty of horsepuckey on both counts. First of all, as mom always said, when you assume the motivations of your opponents, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." Though I give Obama zero benefit of the doubt, I know plenty of people who have taken his exact line on Iraq over the past few years that he has, and it certainly wasn't out of political calculation or a desire to see American defeat.

Second and more interestingly, at the time of the surge, there was zero political cost to McCain supporting the surge. He was running in a Republican primary, and not particularly well, so his ironclad support for troop escalation was largely seen by many Republican stalwarts (in a season where the only anti-war candidate was being treated like a leper) as one of the best things going for the guy, given his various transgressions on other counts. The only people who thought McCain was taking a practical political hit for supporting the surge in early-primary season were non-Republicans, especially journalists. And even the latter were busy praising his return to Straight Talk. Here's what I wrote at the time:

The John McCain presidency effectively began on January 10, 2007, when George W. Bush announced the deployment of five more combat brigades to Iraq. […] [T]he plan was nearly identical to what the Republican senior senator from Arizona, nearly alone among his Capitol Hill colleagues, had been advocating for months: boost troop levels by at least 20,000, give coalition forces the authority to impose security in every corner of Baghdad, and increase the size of America's overburdened standing military by around 100,000 during the next five years.

For the purposes of the 2008 campaign, Bush's surge announcement was almost the perfect gift: McCain got to solidify his case with primary voters even while giving himself operational deniability. ("We've made many, many mistakes since 2003, and these will not be easily reversed," he said on January 11, while reiterating his call for even more troops.) […] [I]t also allowed McCain to recapture some of his lost reputation as a straight-talking independent. "I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war," he said with a grin on Larry King Live right after Bush's speech. The press, which had been souring on the candidate during his noisy lurch to the right, breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Defiant McCain back as maverick," declared the Chicago Tribune.

And note that his whole "rather lose a campaign than lose a war" shtick is almost word for word how he described his reasons for delaying his official entry into the 2000 campaign, in deference to building support for the Kosovo intervention. How did that hurt McCain politically? Let's go to David Brooks, on Feb. 27, 2000:

We don't know where Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign will land, but we can pinpoint when it took off. About a year ago, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was cleansing Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. There were reports of massacres and gang rapes and forced marches. The Clinton administration was gearing up to do something about it. The House Republicans were at cross purposes?pretty sure that whatever President Bill Clinton did, they'd be against it. Texas Gov. George W. Bush did the politically prudent thing?and disappeared off the radar screen. Among Republicans, only McCain rushed to declare himself. He criticized the way Clinton was taking us into Kosovo. But he argued vehemently that the world's superpower could not stand by as civilization unraveled in the middle of Europe.

Suddenly, McCain was being quoted all over. He emerged as the most prominent GOP voice on foreign affairs. As the Carnegie Endowment's Robert Kagan noted, Kosovo was the first primary and McCain won it.

Advocating for more boots on the ground has not been an unpopular position in American politics this past decade. Indeed, McCain never took much of a hit for saying about Bill Clinton's Kosovo strategy much what Obama said about the surge: That it was heading us toward failure. Here's McCain on the Senate floor, April 13, 1999:

I think it is safe to assume that no one, including me, anticipated the speed with which Serbia would defeat our objectives in Kosovo, and the scope of that defeat. Yes, the war is only three weeks old, and yes, NATO can and probably will prevail in this conflict with what is, after all, a considerably inferior adversary. But victory will not be hastened by pretending that things have just gone swimmingly.

Worse, unless we all, administration supporter and detractor alike, look critically at both why we went to war in the Balkans, and why we have failed to achieve our ends, I fear the administration and our NATO allies might commit the gravest mistake we could make at this time: changing our ends to make our means more effective rather than employing more effective means to achieve our ends. […]

For air strikes to have any chance of preventing Milosevic's awful atrocities they needed to be, from the beginning, massive, strategic and sustained. No infrastructure targets should have been off limits. And while we all grieve over civilian casualties as well as our own losses, they are unavoidable. When nations settle their differences by force of arms a million tragedies ensue. That's why we try to avoid it. War is a much more terrible thing than cruise missile attacks on Iraqi radar sites. But losing a war is worse.

How would Kosovo look today if we had sent in ground troops and massively bombed the shit out of Serbia? Hard to say, though surely a lot more people would be dead. The point is that you can win most any military victory you want using maximum U.S. force, but that doesn't in and of itself make sacrificing troops and blowing up countries a good idea, let alone indicative of a politician's superior patriotism.

I don't know about Obama (literally), but I can tell you this: The next time we face what McCain hyperbolically described as "a crisis as profound as any in our history," President McCain will argue ? stoically, and with patriotic sadness more than nationalistic anger ? that the only thing he hates more than war is anyone daring to suggest that escalating troop levels yet again isn't the answer to the transcendental crisis du jour. Will such sentiments work politically in 2008? I don't know. But it's likely his only hope.