October 16, 2008
McCain's War StoryBy Adam G. Mersereau
A broad consensus is forming -- encompassing the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Whoopi Goldberg -- that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake regardless of the outcome. Senator McCain has defended the Surge, but not the Iraq War. He is missing a chance to reveal the naïveté of his opponent.
Everyone knows that the Bush Administration made some avoidable mistakes early in the Iraq war. However, after the bold troop surge and the change of strategy designed by General Petraeus, victory is in sight. But no one is celebrating.
Senator Barack Obama fuels the growing consensus by referring to the Iraq war as a "dumb war." In the first presidential debate, when Obama confronted Senator John McCain on his early support for the Iraq war, McCain changed the subject. In their second debate, Obama attacked the wisdom of the war even harder, and McCain conspicuously avoided the issue. No doubt McCain feels Obama's "dumb war" narrative tightening around his neck like a noose.
But McCain should not hide from the true story of the war in Iraq. Far from being a "dumb war," underneath our mistakes in Iraq laid several strokes of strategic genius. The American people-especially those who have made great personal sacrifices-deserve to hear again the compelling reasons why we invaded Iraq, and how a victory in Iraq could vindicate their sacrifices.
Choosing the Battlefield
It is a basic principle of warfare that a commander must never allow his enemy to select the terrain on which he fights. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were designed for the primary purpose of drawing the United States into Afghanistan, which is Al Qaeda's preferred kill-zone. Al Qaeda helped defeat the Soviet Union there. When the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed, Al Qaeda leaders were convinced they had discovered a formula for destroying infidel super-powers: draw them into the God-forsaken moonscape of Afghanistan to fight a protracted war. Al Qaeda knew it would require a spectacular provocation to lure the U.S. military into Afghanistan. Hence 9/11.
Rather than fall for Al Qaeda's "rope-a-dope" ploy, the Bush administration's war planners examined the global situation. Just as America did not charge headlong into Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we would not launch a massive invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Sure, we could have staged a massive invasion of Afghanistan, but to what end? A large-scale war there would cost many lives and untold resources but would render almost no strategic advantage against the global network of terrorists and their state sponsors.
Instead, President Bush would send a small force to Afghanistan to disperse the Taliban and work with NATO to disrupt Al Qaeda and police the border with Pakistan. To engage the enemy head-on, he would select a battlefield better suited to our strategy.
Iraq - the Obvious Choice
The biggest threat to America was -- and still is -- another 9/11 style attack incorporating nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Even before 9/11, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a beehive of terrorists and WMD activity. Saddam funded Palestinian terrorism. He gave safe haven to notorious terrorists. He hosted bases for six different terrorist groups. His own "Fedayeen Saddam" was operating training camps in Iraq for terrorists from all over the Middle East.
Just prior to 9/11, a Washington think-tank concluded that the most lethal threat to the United States would come from a biological or chemical attack. Biological and chemical weapons were Saddam's forte. One of the few living humans to have actually deployed chemical weapons on a large scale, Saddam was known to possess large stockpiles of them (inspectors inventoried them after the first Gulf War) but refused to provide evidence of their disposal. He had vigorous anthrax and smallpox programs, and he maintained dual-use facilities that could be converted within mere weeks to biological and chemical weapons factories. And yes, he maintained a skeleton nuclear weapons program, ready to be reconstituted as soon as he could beat U.N. sanctions and inspections with help from Russia and France.
All of this made a good case for regime change before 9/11, which is why regime change was the stated goal of the Clinton Administration and Congress before George W. Bush was elected. Every known method to contain Iraq had been tried and had failed: weapons inspections, economic sanctions, U.N. resolutions, and targeted strikes. Editors of the Washington Post and New York Times warned that containment was not working. Military action against Iraq was publicly espoused to varying degrees by Democrats Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and others.
Although these Democrats were among the first to call for retreat when the war became difficult, their pre-9/11 assessment of the Iraqi threat was correct. After 9/11, leaders of both major parties were all the more devoted to "connecting the dots" between terrorist groups and WMD. For anyone paying attention, Iraq was covered with dots.
In addition, the Bush team knew an invasion of Iraq would bring the terrorists to a battlefield on which an American victory could change the entire course of the global war on terror. If a stable representative government could be established there, the entire dynamics of the region could be altered for the better. We would have a new ally that shares a passable boarder with Iran. Perhaps a new Iraq would even give rise to the one antidote for the spreading disease of militant Islam: a Muslim nation willing to fight against Muslim extremists. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq had the infrastructure, resources, and political history to make such a vision possible.
When Barack Obama quips that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq prior to our invasion, he shows his naïveté. The influx of Al Qaeda into Iraq did not discredit the Bush plan, it vindicated it. Further vindication came when in 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri deemed Iraq the "place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era." We had refused to take the bait in Afghanistan. Instead, we selected a battleground that could yield results beyond mere retribution. We had a lot to learn about our chosen battlefield and would make fateful errors, but ultimately our military would learn to fight well in Iraq.
The small-force strategy that routed the Taliban did not work in Iraq. It actually prolonged the Iraq war and gave credibility to Bush's critics. When things got bad, Obama and others clamored for the U.S. to withdraw. Biden argued for a partition of Iraq that would have yielded disaster. But when President Bush teamed with Senator McCain to support a troop "surge" coupled with the new Petraeus strategy, they delivered a devastating blow to our enemies in Iraq and elsewhere. At a moment of fierce political opposition and great military risk, Bush and McCain committed our nation to victory. We showed the terrorists that despite the calls for surrender coming from the left, some Americans had not lost their nerve.
To discredit the success of the surge, Barack Obama cites the Anbar Awakening as the real turning point in the war. But again he fails to understand a fundamental truth of warfare. The surge and the Awakening were symbiotic. The surge allowed us to consolidate the gains resulting from the Awakening, and vice versa. This is the kind of "luck" that often follows in warfare when commanders make bold, well-reasoned decisions.
To prove his mettle after calling for retreat, Obama now argues for a troop surge of his own, this time in Afghanistan. Apparently, it was dumb to invade Iraq but it's smart to expand the war in Afghanistan. What is his strategy? What is his definition of victory? What if our allies balk? He should answer these questions before Election Day.
Senator Obama presents himself as a new kind of diplomat, saying he would open presidential talks with enemies like Iran. Ironically, if Iran's leaders agree to speak with a future American president, it will only be because President Bush has placed them under tremendous pressure. Obama fails to understand that before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, we could not engage Iran from a position of strength. There was no way the U.S. could transport a land army to Iran. The only threat we could muster was air strikes which, when used alone, are often counterproductive. The mullahs knew they were nearly untouchable. As a result of decisions now mocked by Obama, however, the next American President will have real bargaining power. Added to the NATO force on Iran's eastern border, America may soon have on Iran's western border an ally and a long-term military presence.
A dumb war? Rest assured, the leaders of Iran and other Muslim nations see the strategic wisdom of the Iraq war. McCain should tell the story as it ought to be told.
A former officer in the United States Marine Corps, Adam G. Mersereau studied the basics of warfare at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia in the early 1990's. He left the Marine Corps in 1995 at the rank of Captain. He is now an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia.