Rich, McCain, and the Coming Heartbreak Ridge

Frank Rich’s “Tet Happened . . . and No One Cared” is an elegantly written and argued examination of the current situation in Iraq that seems to me to pretty much nail it.

Rich demolishes so many of the myths put out by McCain and the American Right generally. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Da’wa Party, which back Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are closer to Iran than the Sadr Movement. It was al-Maliki’s parliamentary coalition that sought the cease fire by asking their Iranian patrons to broker it. The main motivation for the attack on Sadrist neighborhoods in Basra was to ensure that ISCI wins the elections in that key oil province in October.

It is so refreshing to see an American commentator who clearly has the facts at hand and a sense of proportion in interpreting them.

Rich begins and ends provocatively in arguing that the charge that Sen. John McCain has advocated a hundred-years war in Iraq is a canard, and takes the focus off much more substantive errors that McCain does make.

The only thing I would say is that McCain’s analogy to South Korea, which comes from rightwing imperialist historian John Gaddis of Yale, has two implications. The first is that Bush is Harry Truman and it is July 23, 1950 (just after the US lost the Battle of Taejon and had to retreat) and there is a danger of the Communists overwhelming the South.

In McCain’s mind, ‘staying the course’ and supporting the surge is akin to Truman committing large numbers of troops to make sure that we fight to a stalemate, containing America’s enemies in Iraq.

The second implication is that once a stalemate is achieved and acknowledged, as in Korea from 1953, there can be an enduring US military presence in Iraq.

So while it is not true, as Rich rightly says, that McCain wants to fight for 100 years, it is true that his analogy does imply several more years of hard fighting.

McCain sometimes says we are fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, and sometimes says we are fighting Iran in Iraq. Neither is in the least like North Korea. The Korea analogy is not really an analogy, since we are not fighting to support one half of a country against the other half, nor are we aiming at a successful partition of Iraq that leaves the enemy in control of half the country!

In fact, McCain warns that not pursuing complete military victory would result in “al-Qaeda” taking over Sunni Arab provinces of Iraq (presumably al-Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Diyala). But the Shiites now control Diyala even though it has a Sunni majority, and the strongest Iraqi military force in Ninevah/ Mosul is the Kurdish peshmerga. The Dulaim tribe in al-Anbar has turned against the Qutbists (which McCain incorrectly calls ‘al-Qaeda’– they don’t take orders from Usama Bin Laden), and much weakened them.

So, there is no actual prospect of the Sunni radicals taking over Sunni Iraq. A majority of Iraqi Sunnis still tell pollsters that they are secular people who want a separation of religion and state, which is what you would expect in an ex-Baath population.

There is therefore no analogy to Korea. Who plays the North Koreans here? Is it our Shiite allies, who are allied to Iran? Is it the Sunni Arab Iraqis, whom the Shiites have ethnically cleansed from Baghdad under the nose of the US military?

Rich is right that the main danger of McCain is that his thinking on Iraq is muddled. But it is also a danger that he thinks he is Harry Truman and it is 1 August, 1950 in Korea. What he is actually offering the American public is a series of Gen. Douglas McArthur’s “Home by Christmas” offensives, the ultimate result of which would be an uneasy stalemate in the Middle East with a division or two of US troops hunkered down for decades.

McCain is advocating the equivalents of the Battle of Seoul, Heartbreak Ridge, and Porkchop Hill, followed by spending trillions on a permanent US base. These are all before us in his vision.

McCain is actually promising a potentially long and destructive military campaign to reduce Iraq. McCain as president would likely have to invade Basra and crush the Shiite militias there, and a series of Sunni cities, including Samarra and Mosul, may have to be destroyed.

To paraphrase a notorious comment from Vietnam, what McCain is really offering is this: “We had to destroy the country to save it, sir.”

McCain’s implicit pledge of a decade-long further war, waged in order to get to the point where the US military can stay in Iraq for 100 years. Such a war would roil the Middle East, and we have already seen Turkey invade Iraq, we have seen money flow to Iraqi Sunnis from wealthy Gulfies, and the US, at least, charges that we have seen Iranian arms flowing in (how would that stop, exactly, when they can even be bought on the world arms black market by militias that siphon billions from the Iraqi petroleum production? McCain’s vision of Total Victory is likely to profoundly destabilize the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf for decades to come, endangering US strategic interests and ensuring high fuel costs that endanger the US economy.

So I wouldn’t dismiss the danger implied by McCain’s remark.