Ignorance Is Bliss
While the media obsess over bowling scores, the ability to understand and explain basic concepts of domestic and foreign policy is not up for question in the narrow political debate. If it were, then John McCain's stark ignorance about what is happening in Iraq would be a major story.
"Maliki decided to take on this operation without consulting the Americans," Mr. McCain said on his campaign bus as it rolled through downtown Meridian, saying that the move showed independence but that he had expected the military to focus on Mosul.
"I just am surprised that he would take it on himself to go down and take charge of a military offensive," he said. “I had not anticipated that he would do that."
"I think he felt – which many of us had talked about many times—that Basra was an important part of the country, it was not under the control of the government, we all know that varying mafia-like factions, Shiite militias, control different parts of it […] The police are corrupt. So he decided he wanted to address the issue. And whether he should have or not, I think we will see what the ultimate results are. But it certainly shows a degree of independence. [...]
Asked if the Basra campaign had backfired, he said: "Apparently it was Sadr who asked for the ceasefire, declared a ceasefire. It wasn’t Maliki. Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire. So we’ll see."
That's actually completely untrue. Maliki's own lawmakers traveled to Qom, Iran to seek the cease-fire over the weekend, totally undermining the Prime Minister. Sadr gave up nothing and extracted several concessions from the Iraq government, including the release of political prisoners and an end to raids on the streets of Baghdad. Maliki said that there would be no negotiation one day and meekly agreed to it the next. There is scattered fighting still going on, and some raids and arrests. But nonetheless, it's very clear who the victor was here. The Iraqis wasted little time figuring this one out.
The resilience of the Mahdi Army militia appears to have surprised Maliki, who said his offensive was meant to crush lawless elements in Basra. Top Iraqi commanders acknowledged Monday that they had been taken aback.
"The presence of the armed men [in the street] made this operation become bigger than it was," said Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed Jassim, operations commander for Iraq's Defense Ministry.
As did the experts in the region, who aren't named McCain.
"The Iraqi government looks silly in the face of their ardent statements," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a private group that studies international conflicts. He said the outcome shows "the Iraqi military doesn't have the ability to do much of anything."
Sadr, who was in Iran during the offensive, came out of the confrontation stronger, Hiltermann said.
"He remained undefeated and he looks like the moderate," he said. "He was the one that called for his forces, who were attacked, to stand down."
Not only that, but McCain is completely unclear on the political contours of the Basra offensive, which was almost certainly engaged to weaken the Mahdi Army ahead of October elections and strengthen the ISCI's effort to hold onto power. And McCain's advisors are even more confused:
McCain’s foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann [claimed] that “this demonstrates…that there are very powerful forces that still remain that do not want to see the success of the central government and that would relish the prospect of the American withdrawal so that they could try to fight or shoot their way into power.” Scheunemann then asked, “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed special groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?”
Despite Scheunemann’s fear-mongering, no credible Middle East analyst has ever suggested that Al Qaeda would ever be “in control” of Iraq. Given how uninformed John McCain is on Iraq, it’s no surprise that his advisers are too.
Furthermore, the entire conception of the occupation at this point from McCain's point of view is fatally flawed. It relies on a "we need war because we need more war" concept that is shortsighted and without perspective. Spencer Ackerman posted an email from a junior officer in Iraq that is as level-headed as you can get.
In my opinion, what everyone fails to realize is that this is not a counterinsurgency. If we wanted to stay in Iraq, then it would be a counterinsurgency. But it is clear that our goal is to turn over power and pull out. So, in building our strategic endstate, it's pointless to set goals that relate to our presence in Iraq. If the "insurgency" is a function of our being there, then it is not an insurgency in terms of our endstate. For example, if one of our goals is to stop IED attacks on US forces, that is pointless. When we leave, there will be no more IED attacks on us forces. So our endstate needs to be different. We need to ask "if we left tomorrow, what would happen in Iraq?" and from there, we need to determine which of those anticipated results are unacceptable to us. Then we must aim our efforts on making sure those unacceptable results do not occur.
When I look at the problem that way, it becomes almost impossible to find a purpose in what we do. Regardless of what we do, the Shia are going to take control. They have completely infiltrated all the security forces. The only kind of leader who could keep them in check was a tyrant like Saddam. And when the Shia take control, as soon as we leave, they are going to be as brutal as they like against the Sunni and there will be little we can do about it. That is what will happen whether we leave tomorrow or in ten years. As far as the foreign fighters, they will leave Iraq when we do. So what are we trying to accomplish here? Train the Iraqi forces? History shows that training forces in the Middle East can backfire. Any training we offer these people will find its way to our terrorist enemies.
And yet we have a completely different debate here, hijacked by neocons who claim that Al Qaeda, with no base of support anywhere in the country, would suddenly take over Iraq if we left. And the ringleader of such a brain-dead mindset is McCain.
Seems to me that on the priority chart, it's far more important to let the public in on the fact that one Presidential candidate doesn't know what he's talking about on foreign policy, his perceived strength, than which pins were knocked down at what bowling alley in Altoona on a Saturday night. But maybe I just don't have a good appreciation of metaphor.