Sunday, September 7, 2008

Right Tactics, Wrong Strategy

Every four years, the Republicans run for president in an alternate reality, and win.

Someone explain this to me. According to the latest CNN poll, 64 percent of Americans currently oppose the war in Iraq. According to an ABC poll, 72 percent of Americans -- including many Democrats -- believe McCain would make a good commander-in-chief. That same poll found only 48 percent felt Obama would make a good commander-in-chief. It also found respondents were evenly split between supporting Obama's plans for getting out of Iraq, and McCain's for staying in.

It seems to me that the best way to assess fitness for commander-in-chief is to look at how McCain and Obama have approached the Iraq war. Here are some basics:

We invaded Iraq March 19, 2003. On April 9, we toppled the Saddam statue. On May 1, Bush stood on the aircraft carrier in front of the Mission Accomplished banner, declaring: "My fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

As Frank Rich argues in his column today, McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as VP is very reminiscent of his early support for the Iraq War:

We’ve already seen where such visceral decision-making by McCain can lead. In October 2001, he speculated that Saddam Hussein might have been behind the anthrax attacks in America. That same month he out-Cheneyed Cheney in his repeated public insistence that Iraq had a role in 9/11 — even after both American and foreign intelligence services found that unlikely. He was similarly rash in his reading of the supposed evidence of Saddam’s W.M.D. and in his estimate of the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq. (McCain told MSNBC in late 2001 that we could do with fewer than 100,000.) It wasn’t until months after “Mission Accomplished” that he called for more American forces to be tossed into the bloodbath. The whole fiasco might have been prevented had he listened to those like Gen. Eric Shinseki who faulted the Rumsfeld war plan from the start.

I did a little research, just to be more specific, and found this Salon article, which details McCain's ardent support not only for the war -- but for the original war plan. ("I have no qualms about our strategic plans," he told the Hartford Courant in a March 5 article, [14 days] before the invasion. "I thought we were very successful in Afghanistan.")

It wasn't until August 29, 2003, after the U.N. headquarters was bombed, that McCain told NPR: "we need more troops," adding: "When I say more troops, we need a lot more of certain skills, such as civil affairs capability, military police. We need more linguists."

In other words, to put a finer point on Rich's point, McCain made the first tentative criticism of the war plan five months after the invasion.

Here is how Salon puts it:

To buy into the McCain-knows-best version of the Iraq war, you have to ignore a lot of history. McCain was among the most aggressive proponents of a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein, cosponsoring the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. He also expressed full faith in the way it would be executed -- a war plan conceived and executed by Rumsfeld.
He did call for more troops in Iraq sooner than some, but later than others who made the same argument before the first shots were even fired. And McCain's support for Rumsfeld only evaporated over time, as it became painfully clear that the war in Iraq was going south.
Bert Rockman, the head of the political science department at Purdue University, said McCain's commander-in-chief argument is tarnished because he advocated "the right tactics and the wrong strategy."

Putting aside the fact that, at the very start, he didn't even have the right tactics ("Our technology, particularly air-to-ground technology, is vastly improved," McCain told CNN's Larry King on Dec. 9, 2002. "I don't think you're going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991."), this seems to me an accurate and irrefutable description of McCain's fitness for commander-in-chief. Let's flash forward and give him the Surge (I know -- it's not that simple, given the lack of political reconciliation -- but violence is way down, and even Obama just said the Surge was wildly successful, so for the sake of argument ..) Right tactics, wrong strategy.

Now, here is what Barack Obama said on Oct. 2, 2002, in part, about the Iraq war. (If you haven't yet read the speech, it's worth clicking through):

Now let me be clear - I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the middle east, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

It goes on -- and gets even better; thoroughly prescient. For the record, here, four months later, just a month before the start of the war, is what might have been McCain's rejoinder to Obama:

"As Vice President Cheney has said of those who argue that containment and deterrence are working, the argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is," McCain said in a saber-rattling speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Feb. 13, 2003. "We just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it," he added sarcastically.

Could the record be any more clear that Obama had the right strategy?

In the alternate political reality in which we now live, McCain is credited with pushing the Surge, at great political peril; he gets away with blurring his early record, saying that he called for more troops and opposed Rumsfeld. He has never once been forced by Fox 5 to admit -- as Obama was Thursday regarding his stance on the Surge -- that he was flat-out wrong in his persistent advocacy for the Iraq war; flat-out wrong in his tactical approach.

A friend of mine -- a doctor, who lives in Chicago -- said to me the other day, effectively: the war's over; we are moving ahead; it's not an issue any more. His point was, for forward-looking people, the difference between McCain and Obama on Iraq is not that great: both will get us out, sooner or later. Maybe my friend is in tune with what most people are thinking on this one.

To me, though, this wrinkle in time thinking is incomprehensible.

I'm not easily stamped as a bleeding heart anti-war lefty. I'm pretty upset at, still, for their callous and petty name-calling of Gen. Petraeus. But I insist on examining the record when determining for myself whether Obama or McCain is more fit to be commander-in-chief. After eight years of bluster and sabre-rattling from the Oval Office, eight years that has left our country adrift at home and strained our alliances the world over, nothing could be more relevant; nothing, more important.

Obama had the right strategy. He advocated his strategy at a time when few people were willing to stand up and say they opposed the war -- it seemed like a great political risk at the time. So lump me in with the 48 percent.

Obama is exactly the kind of commander-in-chief this country desperately needs.

MY OBAMA MINUTE: Today, I emailed a friend here in Akron -- the start of my efforts to organize the local Jewish community for Obama.

ND KUDOS: Go to loyal, for his first dailykos diary, about Palin's descision to run for VP with a Down's baby at home, which, last time I checked, had 32 responses! ... and to my cousin for registering voters outside Target in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a crucial swing state! ... and to my other cousin, for heading up Obama efforts outside Philly, in another crucial swing state! ... and to barbara w, for spending time at the Obama phone bank this weekend ... and to barbara w's family, for circulating all those pro-Obama emails! Keep letting us know what you are doing! ... And keep fighting the good fight!

1 comment:

Loyal said...

Nice piece ND.

Let us not forget that successful tactics does not equate with right tactics. At the time the surge was instituted leadership had shown no level of competence to warrant trusting it with even more resources. Sometimes you just get lucky. Or as any epistemlogist woudl acknowledge: even a stopped clock is right twice a day.