Why McCain is Wrong on Iraq


Senator John McCain’s position on the situation in Iraq is wrong on two counts, which means his criticism of Senator Obamais also wrong. The twin pillars of McCain’s assessment of the war are a) the surge worked and b) because the surge worked we are now winning. Neither of those views is based in fact.

The first represents the long-recognized logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, i.e., because one event occurred after another, it was a consequence of the first event. Because the cock crows before sunrise, he thinks he makes the sun come up. Because violence in Iraq dropped after the surge, McCain claims the surge caused the reduction in violence. He is quick to add that he supported the surge at the time, which Obama did not. In the real world, neither rooster nor Senator has quite so much reason to strut upon his dunghill.

The reduction in violence in Iraq, which is likely to prove temporary, has four causes, the least of which is the surge.

In order of importance, they are:

1) Al Qaeda’s alienation of much of its Sunni base, a consequence of its attempt to impose its Puritanical version of Islam before it won the war and consolidated power. This is a common error of revolutionary movements. The smart ones back off and take a “broad front” strategy until the war is won, at which point they cut their “moderate” allies’ throats. Al Qaeda’s non-hierarchical structure, coupled with the message it employs to recruit, may prevent it from adopting a broad front strategy. If so, that may prove a fatal weakness.

2) A change in policy by the U.S. Marines in Anbar Province whereby they stopped attacking the Sunni population and started paying it instead. As the FMFM 1-A argues, in 4GW, cash is your most important supporting arm. The Marines’ new policy, which has now spread to the U.S. Army and beyond Anbar, enabled the locals to turn on al Qaeda and its brutally enforced Puritanism.

3) General Petraeus’s decision to move U.S. troops off their FOB’s and into populated areas where they could protect the population instead of merely protecting themselves.

4) Last and least, the surge, which made more troops available for #3. Absent the other three developments, the surge would have achieved nothing.

In his first assertion, Senator McCain is claiming credit where credit is not due. In his second, that we are winning in Iraq, he fails to understand what “winning” means in a Fourth Generation conflict.

The current reduction in violence in Iraq does not mean we are winning. Nor does al Qaeda’s incipient defeat mean we are winning. We win only if a state re-emerges, the state we destroyed by our invasion. A reduction in violence and the defeat of al Qaeda are necessary preconditions for the re-emergence of a state, but they are not sufficient to ensure it.

A state will be re-established in Iraq only if and when authority comes from a person’s position in the state hierarchy, e.g., governor, minister, mayor, army or police commander, functionary, etc. Services must also come from the state. At present, as best as I can determine, this is happening seldom. If at all. Rather, authority derives from non-state bases such as relationship to a tribe, clan or militia, and services are provided by the U.S. military, NGOs, and Iraqi militias or religious organizations. An Iraqi who holds a nominal state office may have authority, but his authority is not a product of his state office. A local Iraqi government may provide some services, but the government in Baghdad is seldom the source of the resources or authority to provide those services.

In fact, the relative peace now prevailing in Iraq is largely the product of deals the U.S. military has made with real non-state Iraqi authority figures. These deals were both necessary and prudent, but they represent de facto acceptance of the reality that there is no state.

So McCain is wrong on both counts. The fact that a Presidential candidate is fundamentally wrong on so important a subject as the war in Iraq is disturbing. More disturbing is the nature of the errors. Both represent carryovers of Bush administration practices. The first, stating that the surge is the cause of reduced violence, represents the Bush White House’s cynical practice of assuming the American people are too stupid to understand anything even slightly complex. The second, claiming we are winning the Iraq war, represents President Bush’s policy of making statements that are blatantly at odds with reality and figuring that if the truth catches up with them, it will do so too late to alter the course of events. It was the latter practice that got us into the Iraq war in the first place.

Together, the twin pillars of McCain’s Iraq assessment, both built of sand, give substance to the Democrats’ charge that a McCain Presidency would represent a third term for George Bush. They also raise the question of whether they are honest mistakes or, like the arguments the Bush White House used to sell the Iraq conflict, simply lies. One would hate to think that McCain’s “straight talk” comes from a forked tongue, but the parallels with Bush administration practices are too obvious to overlook.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.


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