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McCain on Iraq


On July 15, I attended a reception in Washington DC to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. Geoff Millard and I spoke to Sen. John McCain. When Geoff introduced himself as chairman of the board of Iraq Veterans against the War, McCain retorted, “You’re too late.  We already won that one.”

McCain is now the second U.S. official to declare “mission accomplished” in a war that continues to ravage the people and land of Iraq. “[I]t would be a huge mistake to see Iraq as either a success story or as stable,” Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, wrote on Informed Comment.  McCain’s declaration of victory in Iraq is as specious as the one George W. Bush made after he strutted across the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003.

Gen. David Petraeus is often credited with reducing the violence in Iraq after the “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops.  But the violence continues unabated.  Every few days there are reports of suicide bombings, car bombs, roadside bombs, and armed attacks in Iraq.  About 300 civilians continue to die each month and more than two million Iraqis continue to live as refugees.

I wonder how McCain defines “victory” in Iraq.  The U.S. mission there has never been clear since the invasion in 2003.  First the search for weapons of mass destruction proved fruitless.  Then it became evident there was no link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.  Finally we were told the U.S. invaded Iraq to accomplish regime change and bring democracy to the Iraqi people.  But if democracy is the goal, there has been no victory.

Neither Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nor Ayad Allawi won a mandate in Iraq’s March election, which created a power vacuum. ”The shortages of power, which remain a chronic problem seven years after the American invasion, have combined with a near paralysis of Iraq’s political system and violence to create a volatile mix of challenges before a planned reduction of United States forces this summer,” according to the New York Times.  Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, described the “elitist authoritarianism that basically ignores the people.”

Sunni Arab insurgents have taken advantage of the political vacuum to mount “effective bombing campaigns” and target the banks, says Cole. Last month, attackers in military uniforms tried to storm the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad, causing explosions and gun battles with soldiers and police. Fifteen people were killed and 50 were wounded.

Most Iraqis have less than six hours of electricity per day. Baghdad’s poorer neighborhoods have as little as one hour per day, leaving them without so much as an electric fan to withstand the blistering heat – 120 degrees in some places. The electricity shortages caused thousands of Iraqis to join street demonstrations in Baghdad last month.

The political situation in Iraq is worse than it was before the U.S. invaded.  Although Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, he nevertheless raised the Iraqi standard of living to a respectable level.  “Saddam [had] improved the school system in Iraq and literacy for women was phenomenal for that of an Arab country at the time,” William Quandt, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Virginia who has served as an adviser to the American government on Mideast policy, said on the PBS News Hour. “People didn’t go hungry in those days in Iraq,” Quandt added.

“We knew Saddam was tough,” Mr. Said Aburish, author of a biography of Hussein called ‘Secrets of His Life and Leadership,’ noted on PBS Frontline. “But the balance was completely different then. He was also delivering. The Iraqi people were getting a great deal of things that they needed and wanted and he was popular.”

Al Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Now Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia terrorizes Iraqis in areas like Amil in Mosul. “They say you have to slaughter soldiers and police,” Staff Col. Ismail Khalif Jasim told the New York Times.

There is a campaign of assassinations aimed at government officials across Iraq, the Times reported a few weeks ago: “Some 150 politicians, civil servants, tribal chiefs, police chiefs, Sunni clerks and members of the Awakening Council [former Sunni insurgents now aligned with the Iraqi government and U.S. military] have been assassinated throughout Iraq since the election.” Speculation about those responsible includes Shiite militia allies, Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Kurdish political parties, and Iran.

Reconstruction of what we have destroyed in Iraq remains elusive. After six years and $104 million spent on restoring a sewage treatment system in Falluja, U.S. officials are walking away without connecting a single house. American reconstruction officials have also walked away from partially completed police stations, schools and government buildings in the past months. “Even some of the projects that will be completed are being finished with such haste, Iraqi officials say, that engineering standards have deteriorated precipitously, putting workers in danger and leaving some of the work at risk of collapse,” the Times reported earlier this month.

President Obama is scheduled to reduce the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 80,000 to 50,000 by the end of August.  But that does not mean stability has been attained, nor does it mean the occupation will end.  The U.S. is sending civilian “contractors” – perhaps more accurately called mercenaries – to replace them.

The number of State Department security contractors will more than double – from 2,700 to between 6,000 and 7,000 – according to a July 12 report of the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. The State Department has requested 24 Blackhawk helicopters, 50 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, and other military equipment from the Pentagon. The gigantic U.S. embassy and five “Enduring Presence Posts” (U.S. bases) will remain in Iraq. The contractors are simply taking over the duties of the departing soldiers.

Transferring military functions to civilians is “one more step in the blurring of the lines between military activities and State Department or diplomatic activities,” said Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C.

The U.S. government has changed the language describing military activity in Iraq from combat operations to “stability operations,” but U.S. forces will continue to kill Iraqis. “In practical terms, nothing will change,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza told the Times. “We are already doing stability operations.”

Bush’s war of choice in Iraq has caused 4,413 American deaths. Iraq Body Count estimates that between 97,110 and 105,956 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Untold numbers have been seriously wounded. By September, we will have spent nearly $750 billion on this war and occupation.

John McCain should examine the actual state of affairs in Iraq.  If he does, he might stop declaring victory.

MARJORIE COHN, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, is the deputy secretary general for external communications of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. See





Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.

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