July 29, 2008—Over the past several weeks, John McCain and his backers have touted his early endorsement of the Iraq War “surge” as evidence of his political courage, but it could be equally viewed as an act of political desperation, to forestall total calamity in Iraq and to avert disaster for broader neoconservative objectives in the Middle East.
McCain’s endorsement of the “surge” in January 2007 also represented a repudiation of his previous support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of using a light force of mobile U.S. troops, backed by technology and air power, to win the war.
McCain now presents himself as a persistent and tough critic of Rumsfeld’s war plan, but that doesn’t square with his earlier statements backing the Defense Secretary’s approach.
“I don't think you're going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991,” McCain told Larry King in a pre-invasion interview on Dec. 9, 2002, that compared Rumfeld’s plan for a relatively light invasion army to the overwhelming force deployed in the first Persian Gulf War.
On March 5, 2003, just two weeks before the Iraq invasion, McCain told the Hartford Courant that he had “no qualms about our strategic plans,” noting that a similar approach had been “very successful in Afghanistan.”
Part of McCain’s overconfidence seemed to derive from his belief that U.S. forces would encounter little resistance. As the invasion began, McCain told NBC’s “Today” show that Iraqis “will greet us as liberators.”
His enthusiasm for Rumsfeld’s war plan was still strong more than a year later. “I believe [Rumsfeld] has done a good job in the early stages of the war,” McCain told Fox News’s “The Big Story” on May 4, 2004.
McCain continued to defend the Bush administration’s Iraq policies well into 2006, until public support for the war sank and Democratic prospects for winning control of Congress soared.
In that latter half of 2006, neoconservatives were faced with major reversals in the Middle East, too. Sectarian violence was spiraling out of control in Iraq, and the Israelis failed to rout Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.
If the neocon vision of a powerful and permanent U.S. military presence in the Muslim world were to survive, aggressive action – and more American troops – were needed. That’s when neoconservative strategist Frederick Kagan took the lead in shaping a plan to send thousands of additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
In doing that, he built on a proposal that he drafted in January 2005, along with his brother, Robert Kagan, and William Kristol, a founder of the neocon Project for the New American Century and editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine.
That plan urged the U.S. government to deploy an additional 25,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, not so much to quell the violence inside Iraq, but to intimidate Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East.
At the time, the Bush administration stuck with Rumsfeld’s strategy of keeping the U.S. military “footprint” in Iraq relatively small. However, as U.S. casualties in Iraq continued to mount and sectarian violence spread, President George W. Bush grew impatient with Rumsfeld’s strategy.
The policy dispute reached a crisis point in early November 2006 as it became clear the Democrats were headed toward major gains in Congress and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by Bush family lawyer James Baker, was preparing recommendations for a troop drawdown.
On Nov. 6, 2006, a day before the elections, Rumsfeld sent Bush a memo suggesting a “major adjustment” in Iraq War policy that would include “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases” from 55 to five by July 2007 with remaining U.S. forces only committed to Iraqi areas that request them.
“Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Then, proposing an option similar to a plan enunciated by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld suggested that the commanders “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.”
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]
Though many Americans viewed Rumsfeld as the personification of Bush’s “tough-guy” strategy in the Middle East, the Defense Secretary’s downfall may have been caused by his going wobbly on the war.
Two days later, on Nov. 8, after Democrats had won majorities in both the House and Senate, Rumsfeld was out at the Pentagon and former CIA Director Robert Gates was in.
Initially, Official Washington interpreted the switch as a sign the “realists” who advocated disengagement from Iraq had won out and the neocons had lost. But the reality was the opposite: Gates would be the fresh face who would buy time for an escalation of U.S. troops, not manage a difficult withdrawal.
Bush signaled this point during a Nov. 30, 2006, trip to Amman, Jordan, where he mocked the drawdown recommendations from the Iraq Study Group. The President said U.S. forces would “stay in Iraq to get the job done,” adding “this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Gates Hearing Has New Urgency."]
In early December 2006, Frederick Kagan and his troop-escalation plan resurfaced with a column in The Weekly Standard, "We Can Put More Forces in Iraq."
Vice President Dick Cheney and senior members of Bush's Cabinet soon entered into a dialogue with Kagan to draft a new plan for dealing with the Iraq conflict and to counter the political momentum behind the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations for a gradual withdrawal.
When the Iraq Study Group issued its formal report on Dec. 6, 2006, Bush gave it a cool reception. Then, during a classified briefing at the Pentagon, Bush reportedly made clear to the brass that he had no interest in finding a way out of Iraq.
Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, described Bush’s message as: “What I want to hear from you is how we’re going to win, not how we’re going to leave.”
Working with retired Gen. Jack Keane, Kagan quickly hammered together a report entitled, "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq," which was issued by the American Enterprise Institute where Kagan worked.
Some key points of the AEI white paper were:
As this “surge” strategy began to take shape, John McCain and his neoconservative Senate ally, Joseph Lieberman, clambered onboard. They endorsed Kagan’s plan during an appearance at AEI on Jan. 5, 2007.
“I'd like to especially commend General Keane and Fred Kagan for the outstanding work they've done, not only on this issue but on transformation of the military and many other national security issues,” McCain said, as anti-war protesters marched outside of AEI’s Washington offices.
“There are two keys to any surge of U.S. troops,” McCain said. “To be of value the surge must be substantial and it must be sustained. ... We will need a large number of troops.
“During our recent trip [to Iraq] commanders on the ground spoke of a surge of three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and at least an additional brigade in Anbar province. I believe these numbers are the minimum that's required -- a minimum.”
On Jan. 10, 2007, Bush formally announced his approval of the “surge” strategy, committing more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
As part of the new plan, Bush ousted the commanders on the ground, Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, who were associated with Rumsfeld’s “small-footprint” approach. Bush installed a more gung-ho commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Ultimately about 30,000 additional U.S. troops were dispatched to Iraq – and the levels of violence did decline, although various analysts have different interpretations for the reasons.
Supporters of Bush and McCain – along with much of the U.S. news media – simply assert that the “surge” was a success.
But other analysts point to developments that preceded the “surge,” such as the brutal ethnic cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods which left fewer targets for deaths squads; Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda extremists, the so-called Anbar Awakening; cease-fires declared by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and the cumulative war-weariness among Iraqis after years of horrific bloodshed.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a mixed progress report on the “surge.”
The GAO found that violence in Iraq had fallen over the past year, but that other “surge” goals had not been met. The GAO said training of Iraqi security forces still lags, Sunni insurgents have not been defeated, cease-fires with Shiite militias are fragile, and political reconciliation has not been achieved.
Nevertheless, in recent weeks, virtually every TV interview with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has started with a barrage of questions demanding that he admit he was wrong to oppose the “surge” in 2007.
Meanwhile, Frederick Kagan has written numerous columns over the past several months praising McCain for backing the “surge.” And brother, Robert Kagan, is an “unofficial” foreign policy adviser to McCain’s campaign.
The end of the “surge” will soon see U.S. troop levels recede to about 130,000, where they were when the “surge” began.
A final evaluation of the “surge” may not be possible for several more months, after the troop levels are back down – and when it becomes clear whether any lasting improvement was achieved.
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This story was published on July 30, 2008.