February 25, 2008
John McCain and the Iraq WarBy Steven M. Warshawsky
The foremost reason given by supporters of John McCain for why he should be president is that McCain is best qualified to lead the country during this "time of war." Indeed, fighting and winning the Iraq War is the raison d'etre of McCain's presidential campaign. It was the main theme of his campaign announcement speech in April 2007, and it was his most compelling talking point during the Republican presidential debates. Exit polls consistently showed that McCain was the overwhelming favorite among Republican primary voters whose top concern was Iraq.
The question is whether McCain's steadfast support for a war that is deeply unpopular with the American people can propel him into the White House this November?
After five years of fighting, approximately $500 billion in expenditures, and nearly 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded, McCain advocates an even larger military, economic, and political commitment to Iraq. In sharp contrast with President Bush, who received the loudest bipartisan applause during last month's State of the Union Address when he declared that, due to the success of "the surge," he was planning to bring troops home from Iraq, McCain promises to increase troop levels. See here. And McCain adamantly opposes any timetable for withdrawal. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on January 3, 2008, McCain went so far as to declare that it would be "fine with me" if American troops remained in Iraq for "maybe a hundred years."
Unfortunately for McCain, a large majority of the American people -- including significant numbers of Republicans -- strongly disagree with his positions on the war.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from February 1-3, 2008, reported that 64% of adults nationwide oppose the war in Iraq, while only 34% favor the war -- despite the fact that 52% agree that the U.S. military "is making progress in improving conditions in Iraq and bringing an end to the violence in that country."
A Rasmussen Reports poll from January 29, 2008, reported that 59% of Americans want U.S. troops to be brought home from Iraq immediately or within one year, while only 35% want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq "until the mission is complete." According to this poll, not only do 80% of Democrats favor withdrawal within a year, so do 38% of Republicans.
Similarly, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from January 18-22, 2008, reported that 63% of registered voters think the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq right away or within the next year, including 90% of Democrats, 66% of independents, and 32% of Republicans.
It is clear that even with the undeniable success of the surge in reducing sectarian and terrorist violence in Iraq, most Americans -- including large numbers of Republicans -- prefer to end the war (which, at this point, would be better described as a police action or peacekeeping mission) and bring our troops home. Yet, unless McCain changes his publicly stated position on Iraq, a vote for McCain is a vote to continue and even expand the war. Given that the Iraq War is (currently) the second most important issue on the minds of voters, after the economy, this does not bode well for McCain this November.
In my opinion, to improve his chances of winning the general election, McCain should re-think his approach to the Iraq War and reject the Bush Administration's current project of trying to turn Iraq into the leading edge of a movement for "freedom" and "democracy" in the Middle East.
Let us remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place: Because in the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush recognized -- properly so -- that the preeminent national security threat of our time is the risk that Islamic terrorists, who are dedicated to the destruction of the United States and its way of life, will acquire weapons of mass destruction from "rogue" regimes, and use these weapons against us. As President Bush explained at West Point in June 2002, thereal danger "lies in the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology," specifically, "chemical and biological and nuclear weapons." With such weapons, "even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations." It was the risk posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups that provided the principal justification for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (whether or not, in hindsight, U.S. and European intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein's WMD program was flawed).
Based on our original national security objectives, the Iraq War was "won" more than four years ago, on December 13, 2003. This was the day that U.S. troops captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, famously pulling him from of a "spider hole" near his hometown of Tikrit. By that point in time, the Iraqi military had been routed, Saddam's regime had been deposed, and -- most importantly -- Saddam's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction and to support Islamic terrorism had been eliminated. These objectives were achieved in spectacular fashion in only nine months.
As I previously argued, up to that point in time, the Iraq War remained broadly popular among the American people. In the post-9/11 environment, most Americans recognize that protecting our national security requires taking a more "muscular" approach to confronting and deterring Islamic terrorists and their state sponsors. But Americans, by a wide margin, do not support President Bush's more grandiose vision for "transforming" the Middle East. While the surge has succeeded in reducing the number of U.S. and Iraqi deaths in Iraq -- and in removing the war from newspaper and TV news headlines (for now) -- it has not produced any increase in support for the war among the American people.
While only a minority of Americans want the U.S. to pull out of Iraq "immediately," most Americans are eager for a reasonable plan to end our occupation of Iraq in the foreseeable future. This means in the next year or two, not a decade or more from now. The prospect, which John McCain currently endorses, that significant numbers of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for years to come, is simply unacceptable to most Americans -- including, I reiterate, large numbers of Republicans, without whose support McCain cannot win in November.
I do not disagree that, compared to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, John McCain is the best candidate to lead this nation during these times of increasing international conflict, which includes not only the threat of a nuclear Iran, but also unrest in already-nuclear Pakistan, China's rise as a global superpower, and the re-emergence of a hostile Russia. Both Clinton and Obama are woefully unprepared to serve as Commander-in-Chief. I suspect that most Americans would agree with this assessment.
But the Iraq War is so unpopular that it may end up electing the Democrats' candidate this November, despite McCain's inherent foreign policy advantage. To avoid this result, McCain must offer the American people a new strategy for Iraq, something between the Bush Administration's unpopular democratization strategy, with its open-ended commitment to staying in Iraq, and the "cut-and-run" alternative offered by the Democrats.
I predict that if John McCain were to come out with an "Iraqi Peace Plan" that proposed significant reductions in U.S. troops by the end of his first term, he would neutralize the Democrats' ability to use the war as a rallying cry, and all-but-guarantee himself election as the next president of the United States.