Republican Senator John McCain, frontrunner for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination, criticized the Bush administration yesterday for misleading Americans about the difficulties it faces in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq. McCain, commenting on recent opinion polls which show further erosion in public support for the administration’s Iraq policy, said that President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, with their constantly upbeat public statements about the progress being made in Iraq, had “contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach.” McCain’s comments are sure to resonate with a broad cross-section of the American public, from Democrats (and now a majority of independents) who oppose the war to Republicans who support an American presence in Iraq but are critical of the administration’s policies. Indeed, McCain continues to rank as one of the most popular politicians at the national level. However, a closer look at McCain’s policy proposals for Iraq and his background should give pause to Americans attracted by his charisma and candor. Rather than lightening America’s Iraq burden, the Arizona Senator advocates deeper American involvement in Iraq. This would have serious implications not only for Iraq but also for Americans.
McCain did not oppose the American invasion of Iraq. On the contrary, he is a leading defender of the invasion and removal from power of Saddam Hussein, and supports a continued occupation. Instead, he differs from the administration on the best way to pacify the country. Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney have attempted to stabilize Iraq using existing American military force levels. McCain has yet to give detailed policy proposals for Iraq. However, we know that he favors the resignation of Rumsfeld (though he refuses to say so publicly), who is widely acknowledged to have poorly managed the occupation, and that he has consistently advocated increasing, rather than decreasing (as the administration would prefer), the number of troops in Iraq and opposes setting any timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals. In order to raise troop levels he would need to expand a military which, experts agree, is stretched perilously thinly. This would entail lowering standards for recruits (a process already being embraced by military recruiters who are facing mounting difficulty in keeping troop numbers at their current level, let alone raising them) or reinstituting the draft. Like many Vietnam veterans, though certainly not all, McCain’s experience as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war convinced him that the Vietnam War had been winnable. He believes that the American defeat was the result of timid politicians unwilling to prosecute the war to the necessary extent. For him and many others, a winning strategy would have included mobilizing the entire nation for war and invading North Vietnam, though how they would have justified this to an American public that was increasingly anti-war is never articulated.
Critics of the current war have often drawn a parallel between America’s failure in Vietnam and the problems it faces in Iraq. While these comparisons are often overdrawn and of limited use, it is useful to consider how Vietnam shaped McCain’s conception of American foreign policy, especially in terms of how he would change the country’s Iraq policy as President. We know that McCain would push for deeper American involvement in Iraq. It is also quite possible that he would retaliate against Syrian and Iranian involvement in Iraq (an escalation Bush has so far prudently avoided) given that he chafed against similar restrictions as a pilot in Vietnam. This highlights a striking paradox. American voters are largely disenchanted with the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 53 percent consider the invasion of Iraq a mistake and 62 percent think events in Iraq are going “somewhat or very badly.” This falling support comes despite the fact that the conflict, with relatively low casualties (roughly 2,600 American soldiers killed) and no tax increases, has had comparatively little impact upon American civilians. However, one of the most popular politicians on the national scene and the most likely Republican nominee for President in 2008 favors deepening American involvement in Iraq to an extant that would begin to affect Americans at home. Though we will not know for a number of years what the Bush administration’s exact reasons for their minimalist policy in Iraq (i.e. lowest possible troop levels in Iraq, refusal to raise taxes to pay for the war’s enormous cost), it seems that they are determined to fight the war with as little impact on Americans as possible. It seems that, with good reason, they have little faith in the American public’s willingness to support a truly national effort to quell Iraqi insurgents and stabilize the country. McCain, on the other hand, seems to take American willingness to support such an effort for granted, or at least believes it to be superfluous. This is surprising, considering that critical public opinion forced American withdrawal from Vietnam. Despite the extent to which his war-time experiences color his world view, it seems that Senator McCain may have failed to learn the most important lesson of Vietnam: Americans will not support an ill-conceived war once it begins to seriously impact them. Public support for the Iraq conflict is weak even with the Bush administration’s No Domestic Impact model; how would Americans react to the McCain Mobilize the Nation for War model?