Thursday, July 24, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XI

As if the last thirty-six weeks of the presidential campaign of John McCain weren’t confirmation enough of a candidate and a campaign leadership facing an uphill challenge of their own creation, the last thirty-six hours have made it clearer still. Sisyphus had it easy by comparison.

By now you’ve heard and seen the toweringly transparent existential relativism McCain & crew insist is reality concerning the U.S. troop escalation in Iraq known as “the surge.” We won’t waste time and bandwidth spelling it all out; the videos that follow are instructive:

This major mistake, this two-part jumble of the very chronology of one of the pillars of McCain’s purported foreign-policy expertise is important for what it reveals about the Arizona senator’s qualifications to be president — in fact, for what it seems to reveal about his basic character.

This serial error strongly suggests McCain’s inability to see how the “surge” as a polish for his presidential bona fides— and the value of the “surge” as a weapon to beat Sen. Barack Obama with politically — are only as good as the reason for starting a war in Iraq.

And there wasn’t any.

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Since President Bush formally established that flood-the-zone policy in Iraq, in January 2007, John McCain has been more than along for the ride. He’s made much of his early support for the administration “surge,” almost making you think he thought of it. And in the heat of the primary campaign, and especially now in the runup to the general, McCain has appropriated the “surge” and his backing of it as the central argument — the spearhead, if you will — of his attack on Barack Obama’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.

His latest “surge”-related campaign soundbite was thisclose to accusing Barack Obama of sedition, the not-so-distant cousin of treason.

Set aside for now that virtual slander of Obama. Consider how the “surge” has formed both the bedrock of McCain’s militarist narrative, and (with Nuri al-Maliki’s call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq) the foundation of his own political undoing.

Those who trumpet the success of the “surge” can’t get around the underlying and broader failure of the war in Iraq itself. Despite its apparent status as a positive military development, the “surge” is a success at the service of a failure, a fragile but quantifiable upside to an ill-conceived and increasingly ruinous war — the same one Barack Obama has said repeatedly “should never have been waged.” The same war Obama has opposed all along.

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Whatever traction McCain gains politically by virtue of the “surge” is defeated by the fact that the “surge” was a good decision that should never have had to be made in the first place.

Now that Maliki has summoned the political confidence to call for U.S. forces to exit his country, McCain is a victim of the “surge”’s success. His main rationale for keeping American troops in Iraq has largely vanished. With a national mood overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq, McCain’s most unassailable foreign-policy tagline — “He Backed the Surge” — has declining political value, especially to the plurality of Americans who opposed the war since before the “surge” existed.

McCain, and by extension the Bush administration, are prisoners of the “surge,” so much so that they’ve conceded the metrics of victory and defeat to the proverbial Enemy. Chris Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, saw this [“Countdown,” MSNBC, Monday]:

“The problem for John McCain and George Bush is this: They have defined leaving as losing. Therefore, ergo, we cannot ever leave. It’s always tomorrow or some time on the horizon … at a certain point, it starts to feel like ‘Waiting for Godot.’ No matter what they say, the stage directions keep saying, ‘do not move.’”

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There’s another possible factor in the equation: the possibility that the forces of terrorist chaos and their enablers now loose in Iraq might be in stand-down mode — creating fewer acts of violence, fewer IED explosions, fewer clashes with U.S. forces — not solely because of the “surge” but also because of their collective anticipation of a change in leadership, and policy, in the United States.

As the “surge” evolved after the arrival of the forces needed to fight it (in June 2007), so too evolved a U.S. presidential campaign that became a referendum on the Iraq war, and a regularity of polling that reflected growing popular opposition to the war.

McCain is already at least nominally on board the idea of withdrawing troops. “By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom,” he said in May. “The Iraq War has been won.”

And with Obama long committed to withdrawing those troops on a shorter timeframe/plane/horizon/continuum than that, one of the key emotional motivators behind the terrorists in Iraq has been undercut, no matter who wins in November. What’s been conventionally described as success by “surge” may have as much to do with expectations of the future in Washington as with events of the present day in Baghdad.

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Maybe that’s speculation, but what’s true is the damage done to McCain by his growing litany of errors and distortions on matters of foreign policy and the military — from juxtaposing Iran and Pakistan when they have no common borders to trivializing the idea of military action against another country (“bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”); from confusing Sudan and Somalia to mixing-up Sunni and Shi’a; from misstating his presence on the Senate floor for a vote condemning a Islamic terrorist organization to denying he voted against proposals to increase health-care funding for veterans when his voting record shows he did.

More than once. More than twice.

What’s true is the likelihood that the “surge” as a political weapon for John McCain is subject to diminishing returns: the more it’s used, the less effective it becomes — especially against a nimble, confident opponent who opposed the war that made the “surge” not just possible but necessary.

What’s true is that the Vladimir and Estragon of John McCain and George Bush remain yoked to an unnecessary war, waiting for the Godot of Victory.

One leaves the stage for certain on Jan. 20th, the other may well have left in November.

And neither of them has a clue what Godot looks like.
Image credit: Waiting for Godot cover: Unknown.

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