Democrats are congratulating themselves on the political cleverness of the cheap shots they are taking at Sen. John McCain over his already-famous “100 years in Iraq” comment.
What McCain said at a townhall meeting in New Hampshire in January was inarguably true. He was asked about President Bush’s comment that we could stay in Iraq for 50 years. McCain replied, “Make it 100. We’ve been in South Korea . . . we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me. As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, that’s fine with me. I hope that would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaeda is training, recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.”
The statement speaks for itself. If we prevail in Iraq and the violence ends, American troops can be stationed there just as they are in other peaceful, strategically important countries such as South Korea and Japan. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have suggested that this means McCain “wants to fight a 100-year war,” in Obama’s words. This is so obvious a distortion that it must backfire against Democrats over time, especially if they nominate Barack Obama, who has so loudly advertised his commitment to civil discourse (at least outside of church).
Democrats have long been counting on the Iraq war being a big political bonus this fall, but that is by no means guaranteed. McCain is a staunch supporter of the war who is not associated with its initial failures because he was warning against them from the beginning. As early as November 2003 he gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations that identified the need for a surge in Iraq, even if no one was calling it that yet.
He correctly diagnosed the strategic imperative on the ground: “Security is a precondition for everything else we want to accomplish in Iraq. We will not get good intelligence until we provide a level of public safety and a commitment to stay that encourages Iraqis to cast their lot with us, rather than wait to see whether we or the Ba’athists prevail. Local Iraqis need to have enough confidence in our strength and staying power to collaborate with us. Absent improved security, acts of sabotage will hold back economic progress. Without better security, political progress will be difficult because the Iraqi people will not trust an Iraqi political authority that can’t protect them.”
McCain called for more troops and put his finger on what would be a key failing in the administration’s strategy for years: “Prematurely placing the burden of security on Iraqis is not the answer. Hastily trained Iraqi security forces cannot be expected to accomplish what U.S. forces have not yet succeeded in doing: defeating the Ba’athists and international terrorists inside Iraq.”
Of course, many conservatives and the Bush administration didn’t catch up to McCain until it was almost too late – in 2006, when Iraq was descending into hell. McCain lobbied the administration internally for the surge and for sending Gen. David Petraeus to Iraq. He was the surge’s most vocal supporter when the media were deeming it an act of suicide and other Republican senators were wobbly at best. McCain said he would rather lose an election than lose a war, and meant it. In contrast to Obama, who talks beautifully about political courage but has never demonstrated any, McCain put his ambitions on the line. He did more than any political figure besides President Bush to turn around the war in Iraq.
The success the surge has had in diminishing violence has changed public perceptions of the war. Most people still believe the war was a mistake, but they are more optimistic about our efforts and less inclined to favor the kind of immediate withdrawal favored by Obama and Clinton. A Pew Research survey found that people are evenly split on whether the war is going well or poorly, and split over whether we should bring the troops home or keep them in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. A majority, 53 percent, believe we will succeed in our goals. A CBS News poll had 42 percent of the public saying the surge had made things better, up from a mere 17 percent in June. Gallup found that only 18 percent favor withdrawing troops “as soon as possible,” and among those favoring withdrawal, a two-to-one majority wants it to be gradual and orderly.
Of course, these figures all will fluctuate with the state of the war. The media has played up the latest violence in Iraq, but it’s not news that Iraq continues to be dangerous, and the context is always important. (Increased activity by Shia militias, for example, reflect a positive development if they are being hit by Iraqi government forces.) Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker have presented President Bush a plan to keep troops levels at their pre-surge level of 15 combat brigades for a period of “consolidation and evaluation” after the drawdown from the surge in July. This plan likely means that the internal administration battle over what to do after the surge has been won by those favoring more troops rather than those — especially the institutional army — favoring less. Their victory will give us a much better chance of holding and building on gains we’ve made over the last year. An Iraqi battalion commander in hotly contested Mosul put it tartly to the New York Times the other day: “There are those who say the Iraqi Army can control Iraq without the Americans. But they are liars. Without the Americans it would be impossible for us to control Iraq.”
We have paid a dear price in Iraq. Four thousand brave Americans have fallen. The Democrats think that they will therefore be able to capitalize on public exhaustion with the war. But we suspect the public still prefers winning a war to losing one. If it does, John McCain is better suited for the task than either of his two opponents, no matter how often they throw out the 100-year comment.