John McCain and I have something in common: we have both tried recently, and failed, to get op-eds picked up by major newspapers. But I daresay McCain’s snub from the New York Times two days ago is a bit more important to the average Washington Note reader. The Times refused to run McCain’s submission lauding Iraq’s progress and criticizing rival Barack Obama, after running a piece on Iraq authored by Obama last week.
The Times’ reasons for not running the op-ed were, on the whole, fair. McCain’s piece, which can be found here, is essentially an attack piece on Obama, and as such is not a substantive policy statement. Still, there are two parts of the speech that require special attention.
The first is a general observation; throughout the piece, McCain focuses on security. He mentions the role played by American troops and the new counterinsurgency strategy for the drop in violence in Iraq, the “Sons of Iraq” now fighting nominally for Iraq’s government against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the steady but fragile progress of the Iraqi Army, and the continued danger from terrorists and “Shiite extremists” if we leave too early.
Yet McCain devotes only one sentence to political progress, in which he points to a recent US Embassy report saying that Iraq has met 15 of 18 congressional benchmarks, an argument that I have disputed before on this blog. But setting that disagreement aside, the piece shows McCain’s focus on security, without paying much attention to the political realm.
President Bush said when introducing the surge that it was meant to give Iraq’s political leaders “breathing space” for political reconciliation. But the fault of McCain’s editorial is that it only deals with half of the equation; it operates on the assumption that with security, political reconciliation will automatically follow. Yet this is not true, and increased security leaves Iraq with major issues that even the American Embassy report acknowledged; the lack of a law governing Iraq’s oil industry, immense corruption within the Iraqi police force, and most importantly, the disarming or integration into the Iraqi security forces of sectarian militias (including the Sons of Iraq).
My second issue with McCain’s argument is his belief in the efficacy of our current counterinsurgency strategy. He writes that:
I will continue implementing a proven counterinsurgency strategy not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan with the goal of creating stable, secure, self-sustaining democratic allies.
There is a clear contradiction in this statement. Certain tactics of the surge have worked to significantly lower violence, especially the support for the Sons of Iraq and other local militias. However, the strategic outcome of the surge cannot be determined now–it is dependent on whether or not McCain’s stated goal of a pluralistic, democratic and free Iraq emerges after our occupation of Iraq has ended.
Yet as McCain writes, the gains of the surge are reversible and “extremists supported by Al Qaeda or Iran could stage a comeback” if US troops are pulled out too soon. If the gains are so fragile, how can it be said that Gen. Petraeus’ new counterinsurgency plan is proven?
Further, in Afghanistan we have roughly a fourth of the number of American and international troops than in Iraq. They cover a larger country than Iraq, with a small educated class, no recently functioning central government, and an enemy that has a ready safe haven and is increasing the tempo of its operations. It would be difficult to imagine the same strategy working perfectly in Afghanistan, even if it successfully pacifies Iraq.
Both Obama and McCain have failed to specify how they would change policy toward Afghanistan besides sending more troops, and this is a gross and unacceptable deficiency in both campaign platforms. But John McCain should take his own advice, and not rewrite the history of the Iraq war as an unqualified success before it is even finished.