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McCain and the Iraq Statements

June 12th, 2008

Recently, McCain said that when U.S. troops come back from Iraq is “not too important.” He was instantly criticized by Democrats; in response, he complained that the criticism ignores the context.

And you know what? McCain is right: his statements were taken out of context.

The catch, for McCain, is that if you look closely enough at the context, you’ll see an even deeper problem. The context is that McCain’s statements about Iraq (including way back to his “hundred years” statement) are based upon the premise that Iraq will very soon become a peaceful place where our soldiers never get attacked or killed. That’s what McCain is talking about when he says that our having soldiers and bases in Iraq will be just like our having soldiers and bases in Japan, Germany, and Korea.

And within that context, you can see why McCain’s latest comment makes sense: if things are peaceful in Iraq, then having troops there will be just another ordinary overseas assignment–whether a soldier gets posted to Baghdad or Yokota simply depends on that soldier’s preference for weather and the occasional venture into trying out the local cuisine.

This, however, is where McCain’s context breaks down: there is no evidence whatsoever that Iraq will become anywhere near so peaceful in the near future. It could happen, but that is so unlikely as to approach absurdity. Yes, last year’s cease fire by the Mahdi Army (and not the Surge™) has allowed for lower casualty rates among our soldiers, which is more than I would have thought possible–few predicted that al Sadr would do such a thing–but even with Iraq’s most important militia leader playing nice, even with things going as well as we can temporarily hope for, we’re still seeing an American soldier killed every day on average. Hoping for violence to completely disappear is almost literally a pipe dream.

But McCain is hoping to rewrite the conventional wisdom by acting as if a peaceful Iraq in the very near future is a foregone conclusion–that’s a big part of what his “2013” speech was about. He’s hoping to take the illusion of a successful Surge™ and ride it to the assumption that we’re winning in Iraq and will soon see it become just another U.S. ally where IEDs, marketplace bombers, and mortar attacks simply do not happen.

And this is where McCain could get into trouble: the pitch just isn’t selling. Most Americans do not make the same assumptions that McCain is making–which is why his “not too important” and “hundred years” comments play so badly.

And McCain has seen this trouble before. If you recall, he dropped into obscurity late last year, and everyone (myself included) figured he was toast. But people seem to have forgotten why that happened. McCain’s campaign plummeted after he made his statement that Iraq was safe enough to walk around its streets completely unarmed and unprotected–and then“proved” his point by visiting Iraq and taking a “stroll” through a marketplace–wearing a bulletproof vest, surrounded by a hundred soldiers, and covered by three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships. Soon afterward, he became something of a laughingstock.

Iraq is doing better now than it was then, which may have contributed to McCain’s comeback, but it is not doing so well that we can consider it another Japan or Germany. As I see it, McCain’s press to change assumptions about Iraq can have only a few possible outcomes, and none of them are very good for McCain. At best, he’ll get many or most Republican voters to see Iraq as maybe becoming manageable enough to keep our troops there. However, I think it is much more likely that things will continue as they are now: people will not accept McCain’s assumptions, and his statements about Iraq will continue to disconnect with what Americans perceive.

So, when McCain complains that his statements are being taken out of context, he is correct, but it is more his fault than anyone else’s–they’re taken out of context because McCain’s context is so patently absurd that no one will accept it.

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