July 22, 2008—John McCain has denounced Barack Obama as being “completely wrong” on Iraq, but it was McCain who advocated what turned out to be the fundamental strategic blunder in the post-9/11 conflicts, the hasty – and premature – pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq.
Only weeks after the Taliban were routed from Kabul and the remnants of al-Qaeda had fled from bases in Tora Bora, McCain took the lead in urging the Bush administration to turn its attention toward Iraq.
In a Feb. 2, 2002, speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, McCain said the United States and its allies needed to concentrate on overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
“The next front is apparent, and we should not shirk from acknowledging it,” McCain said. “A terrorist resides in Baghdad, with the resources of an entire state at his disposal, flush with cash from illicit oil revenues and proud of a decade-long record of defying the international community's demands that he come clean on his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
”A day of reckoning is approaching.”
McCain’s speech, with the ambitious title, “From Crisis to Opportunity: American Internationalism and the New Atlantic Order,” laid out the aggressive neoconservative agenda that President George W. Bush would pursue in the months that followed.
Bush soon was diverting U.S. intelligence resources from Afghanistan to the new front – Iraq – undercutting efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other key surviving al-Qaeda leaders, who had sought refuge in the rugged Pakistani tribal areas.
By late summer 2002, the Bush administration had begun its propaganda campaign to stoke American war fever toward Iraq. In the fall, Bush stampeded Congress into approving a use-of-force resolution. One year after McCain’s speech, the U.S. military was putting the final touches on invasion plans.
On March 19, 2003, Bush fulfilled McCain’s dream by launching the invasion of Iraq, succeeding in ousting Hussein’s government in three weeks but then finding a large U.S. expeditionary force tied down by a stubborn insurgency for the next five-plus years.
Captured al-Qaeda documents make clear that bin Laden and his inner circle viewed the U.S. attack on Iraq as a welcome gift, a chance for them to rebuild their organization inside Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country where al-Qaeda had old allies in the tribal regions and historic ties to Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence agency, the ISI.
Al-Qaeda’s Iraq strategy was summed up in a letter that a senior al-Qaeda leader, known as “Atiyah,” sent to Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi in December 2005, urging Zarqawi, who was leading the "al-Qaeda in Iraq" contingent, to tone down his aggressiveness and take more time because “prolonging the war is in our interest.”
[To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]
Zarqawi, who spurned this advice and alienated many of his erstwhile Sunni-insurgent allies, was killed in a U.S. air strike in June 2006. However, the chaos that Zarqawi had helped spark, especially the brutal ethnic cleansing that drove the Sunni and Shiite populations apart, took months longer to burn out.
In Washington – and throughout the mainstream U.S. news media – it has become conventional wisdom that the violence in Iraq has decreased because of Bush’s brave decision in early 2007 to “surge” U.S. combat forces.
McCain also claims credit for this policy shift and it is at the heart of his attacks on Obama, who opposed the “surge.”
However, the reality is that a variety of other factors, predating the “surge,” were already moving Iraq toward a reduction of violence.
Not only was the hyper-violent Zarqawi eliminated in June 2006, but many Sunni tribal leaders – offended by the excesses of Zarqawi’s jihadists and reeling from the death toll inflicted by American firepower – soon were accepting U.S. cash payments in exchange for a truce.
Also helping to ease the violence, Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr declared a series of cease-fires. Plus, the ethnic cleansing, which had been particularly ugly in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, largely had separated the two sects, eliminating a major cause of the slaughter that raged in 2006.
Though these developments preceded the “surge” – and appear to have been far more important than the extra 30,000 U.S. troops, Bush and McCain now bait anyone who opposed the “surge,” like Obama, as weak and unfit to be Commander in Chief.
In their simplistic rendering of the story, Bush and McCain are aided by the superficiality of the U.S. news media, which has always shied away from challenging Bush-McCain pronouncements about the war.
Those two Iraq War advocates, however, have been shaken in recent days by public demands from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for a U.S. withdrawal timetable. Maliki went public with his discordant message on July 7 in the context of discussing U.S.-Iraqi negotiations on a “status-of-forces” agreement that would govern the continued presence of American troops after a UN resolution permitting the occupation expires at the end of this year.
Bush, who has adamantly opposed any “timetable” or “timeline,” finally talked Maliki into agreeing to the semantic fudge of a “time horizon.” But Maliki undercut that by telling the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that he viewed Obama’s proposed 16-month withdrawal timetable favorably.
“Obama’s remarks that, if he takes office, he would withdraw the [U.S.] forces within 16 months, we think that this period might increase or decrease a little, but that it might be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq,” Maliki said.
Thrust into damage-control mode, the White House sought a “clarification” from Baghad that only muddied the issue more. Though Maliki’s office agreed to say his words were misconstrued, it soon became clear that they weren’t.
During Obama’s visit to Iraq on Monday, Maliki’s spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, told reporters that the Iraqi government wanted the U.S. troop withdrawal to be completed by the end of 2010, whereas Obama’s 16-month timetable from the start of his presidency would put the departure date sometime in May 2010.
The rough correlation between the views of Obama and Maliki was another blow to McCain, who has talked about a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq stretching on for possibly 100 years or more.
But possibly a larger vulnerability for McCain is the fact that he was a leader in the neoconservative strategy to downplay the political-military challenges in Afghanistan in favor of exaggerating the strategic threat from Iraq.
In recent months, it’s become increasingly obvious that the diversion of U.S. military and financial resources to Iraq over the past five-plus years bought al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies time to regroup and reorganize inside Pakistan.
The United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan now are facing a deteriorating security situation that was highlighted by a brazen Taliban assault on a U.S. military base on July 13 that killed nine American soldiers.
From base camps inside Pakistan, al-Qaeda forces also are believed to be plotting new terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, political strains inside Pakistan have renewed concerns about the possibility that the country’s nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Much of this predicament can be traced back to the hubris that infused McCain’s speech in Munich in February 2002.
In those heady days after the U.S. ouster of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, McCain hailed “a new American internationalism” designed “to end safe harbor for terrorists anywhere, to aggressively target rogue regimes that threaten us with weapons of mass destruction, and to consolidate freedom’s gains through institutions that reflect our values.”
To McCain, this meant that the United States had a fundamental right to invade any country on earth that was viewed as an actual or potential threat, a theory of American exceptionalism to international law that was at the heart of Bush’s strategy of “preemptive war.”
“Americans believe we have a mandate to defeat and dismantle the global terrorist network that threatens both Europe and America,” McCain said. “As our President has said, this network includes not just the terrorists but the states that make possible their continued operation.
“Many of these are rogue regimes that possess or are developing weapons of mass destruction which threaten Europeans and Americans alike. We in America learned the hard way that we can never again wait for our enemies to choose their moment. The initiative is now ours, and we are seizing it.”
McCain even presented himself as a forerunner to Bush’s neoconservative policies.
“Several years ago, I and many others argued that the United States, in concert with willing allies, should work to undermine from within and without outlaw regimes that disdain the rules of international conduct and whose internal dysfunction threatened other nations,” McCain said.
“Just this week, the American people heard our President articulate a policy to defeat the ‘axis of evil’ that threatens us with its support for terror and development of weapons of mass destruction,” McCain said in reference to Bush’s warning to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
“Dictators that harbor terrorists and build these weapons are now on notice that such behavior is, in itself, a casus belli. Nowhere is such an ultimatum more applicable than in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.”
McCain then reprised what turned out to be the bogus case for invading Iraq.
”Almost everyone familiar with Saddam's record of biological weapons development over the past two decades agrees that he surely possesses such weapons. He also possesses vast stocks of chemical weapons and is known to have aggressively pursued, with some success, the development of nuclear weapons,” McCain said.
“Terrorist training camps exist on Iraqi soil, and Iraqi officials are known to have had a number of contacts with al-Qaeda. These were probably not courtesy calls,” McCain added in the smug, sarcastic tone common to that period.
As it turned out, the “vast stocks” of chemical weapons and the prospect of nuclear weapons were non-existent. The active “terrorist training camps” on Iraqi soil were hostile to Hussein’s secular regime and were located outside Baghdad’s control in areas protected by the U.S.-British-enforced “no-fly zone.”
Evidence collected after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 revealed that Saddam Hussein rebuffed overtures from al-Qaeda, which he regarded as an enemy in the Arab world. Those contacts were not even “courtesy calls.” [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
However, in February 2002, at the crucial moment when al-Qaeda’s leaders were on the run and Afghanistan was in desperate need of rebuilding, McCain became a leading advocate for the neocon rush to war in Iraq.
As it turned out, McCain appears to have been “completely wrong” in that judgment, a strategy that has damaged U.S. standing in the world and has played into the deadly hands of Osama bin Laden.
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This story was published on July 22, 2008.