Friday, April 11, 2008

One Hundred Years of Solitude: McCain and Iraq

A statement made to an obscure meeting in New Hampshire three months ago, now has the potential to derail John McCain’s presidential campaign. On 3 January the Republican nominee spoke about a possible US presence in Iraq for a hundred years. Now Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean said the Republicans were trying to deceive voters about what McCain really meant that night. "We honour John McCain's military service, but not every war hero ought to end up in the presidency of the United States," Dean said. "If you can't tell the difference between the Shia and the Sunnis, then America ought not to be in Iraq for 100 years."

McCain made the original comment at a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire five days before that state’s primary. That night the Arizona senator told an audience of 200 people he didn’t mind if the US military stayed in Iraq for “a hundred years“. When a questioner began a question by saying “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years”, McCain interrupted him by saying “make it a hundred”. He continued: We’ve been in South Korea … we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me.”

The exchange was captured in this Youtube video:

The backlash wasn’t long in coming. The two main Democrat candidates gleefully seized on the McCain remarks saying he would continue to implement President Bush’s failed policies in Iraq. Hillary Clinton said the timeframe for American troops to return home should be 60 days not 100 years. Barack Obama was similarly scathing. He said the US should be spending “billions of dollars in Baghdad” and instead spend the money on schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. "Senator McCain said the other day that we might be mired for 100 years in Iraq,” he said “Which is reason enough not to give him four years in the White House”.

In February, McCain went on Larry King’s CNN show to defend his statement. He said he was referring to a military presence similar to what the US already has in Japan, Germany and South Korea. He said the Democrats’ desire to set a date for troop withdrawal would lead to chaos and genocide and would undo “all the success we've achieved and al Qaeda tells the world they defeated the United States of America.” McCain said he wouldn’t let that happen.

Of course what McCain really meant was keeping a garrison force in Iraq, not continuing the type of war America is now fighting. He suggests it would be acceptable to "maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world" similar to that in Japan and Korea. He argues that Obama "has been knowingly twisting” his (McCain's) words. Right-of-centre commentator Clifford May agrees with McCain and says the Arizona senator’s point was that the presence of American forces promotes stability as it does in Europe and Asia for the last fifty years. However May also warned that the US could perhaps still be fighting militant Islamists in a hundred years. “What could be worse than that?” he asked. His answer: “A hundred years from now, America and the West could have been defeated by militant Islamists.”

The Huffington Post’s Ilyse Hogue suggests that no matter what happens in Iraq, the strategy of both Bush and McCain all boils down to one phrase: “six more months”. Hogue says that when the "surge" began a year ago, the politicians and generals told America things would get better by September. When September arrived, the improvement was predicted for the Northern Spring. Now this week General Petraeus has told Congress he needs another six months. Hogue calls it “selling an endless war on the instalment plan.”

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