That’s why it’s no surprise that so few stopped to absorb the disastrous six-day battle of Basra that ended last week — a mini-Tet that belied the “success” of the surge. Even fewer noticed that the presumptive Republican nominee seemed at least as oblivious to what was going down as President Bush, no tiny feat.
In Mr. Bush’s telling, Basra was a “defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” He praised the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and boasted repeatedly that the Iraqi forces were fighting “in the lead.” The Pentagon spokesman declared that this splendid engagement was “a byproduct of the success of the surge.”
It was a defining moment all right. Mr. Maliki’s impulsive and ill-planned attempt to vanquish the militias in southern Iraq loyal to his Shiite rival, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, was a failure that left Mr. Sadr more secure than before. Though some Iraqi armed forces were briefly in the lead, others mutinied. Eventually American and British forces and air power had to ride to the rescue in both Basra and Baghdad. Even then, the result was at best a standoff, with huge casualties. The battle ended only when Mr. Maliki’s own political minions sought a cease-fire.
Mr. McCain was just as wrong about Basra as he was in 2003, when he said the war would be “brief” and be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. Or as he was in the 1990s, when he championed extravagant State Department funding for the war instigator Ahmad Chalabi, who’d already been branded untrustworthy by the C.I.A. (The relationship between Mr. Chalabi and the former lobbyist Charles Black, now a chief McCain campaign strategist, is explored in a new book, “The Man Who Pushed America to War,” by Aram Roston.)
As for Basra, Mr. McCain told Joe Klein of Time in January that it was “not a problem.” He told John King of CNN while in Baghdad last month that Mr. Sadr’s “influence has been on the wane for a long time.” When the battle ended last week, Mr. McCain said: “Apparently it was Sadr who asked for the cease-fire, declared a cease-fire. It wasn’t Maliki. Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a cease-fire.” At least the last of those sentences was accurate. It was indeed the losing side — Maliki’s — that pleaded for the cease-fire.
Perhaps all these mistaken judgments can be attributed to the fog of war. But Mr. McCain’s bigger strategic picture, immutable no matter what happens on the ground, is foggier still. Like Mr. Bush, he keeps selling Iraq as the central front in the war on Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda was not even a participant in the Basra battle, which was an eruption of a Shiite-vs.-Shiite civil war. (Al Qaeda is busy enough in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the actual central front in the war on terror.)
Mr. McCain is also fond of portraying Mr. Maliki’s “democracy” in Iraq as an essential bulwark against Iran; his surrogate Lindsey Graham habitually refers to Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army as “Iranian-backed militias.” But the political coalition and militia propping up Mr. Maliki are even closer to Iran than the Sadrists. McClatchy Newspapers reported last week that the Maliki-Sadr cease-fire was not only brokered in Iran but by a general whose name is on the Treasury Department’s terrorist list: the commander of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
So this is where this latest defining moment in Iraq leaves us: with victories for Iran and Mr. Sadr, and with Iraqi forces that still can’t stand up (training cost to American taxpayers so far: $22 billion) so we can stand down. The Baghdad Green Zone, pummeled with lethal mortar fire, proved vulnerable once again. Basra remains so perilous that Britain has had to suddenly halt its planned troop withdrawals. Tony Blair had ordered the drawdown a year ago, after declaring that “the next chapter in Basra’s history will be written by the Iraqis.”
The surge is a success in exactly one way: American forces, by putting their lives on the line and benefiting from a now-defunct Sadr cease-fire, have reduced violence in Baghdad (though only to early 2005 levels). But as the Middle East scholar Juan Cole has written, “the ‘surge’ was never meant to be the objective but rather the means.”
None of the objectives have been met. Remember that “return on success” — as in returning troops — that Mr. Bush promised in January’s State of the Union? We will end 2008 with more Americans in Iraq than the 132,000 at the time the surge began. Even Gen. David Petraeus said last month that there has not been “sufficient progress” on the other most important objective, Iraqi political reconciliation. Mr. Maliki’s move against Mr. Sadr in Basra, done without even consulting Iraq’s “democratically elected” Parliament, was an attempt to take out his opponent by force rather than wait for the October provincial elections.
Not that other metrics are any brighter. At last, oil production sometimes reaches prewar levels. But a third or more of the oil, as The New York Times reported, is siphoned off to the black market, where it finances the insurgency. The projected date for turning over security operations to the Iraqis — first set for the end of 2006 by Iraqi officials, then moved up to the end of 2007 and July 2008 by our own Defense Department — is omitted entirely in the latest Pentagon report.
“We’re succeeding,” Mr. McCain said after his last trip to Iraq. “I don’t care what anybody says.” Again, it’s the last sentence that’s accurate. When General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify before Congress again this week — against the backdrop of a million-Iraqi, anti-American protest called by Mr. Sadr — Mr. McCain will ram home all this “success” no matter the facts.
The opinion piece also says:
Everything else Mr. McCain has to say about Iraq is more troubling, and I don’t mean just his recent serial gaffe conflating Shiite Iran and Sunni Qaeda. The sum total of his public record suggests that he could well prolong the war for another century — not because he’s the crazed militarist portrayed by Democrats, but through sheer inertia, bad judgment and blundering.
I think that McCain is the crazed militarist that Democrats portray him as. His record would seem to bear this out.
Frank Rich takes the Democrats to task for misconstruing John McCain's "100 years in Iraq" comment. McCain was not asking for a 100 year war, rather a 100 year occupation, so what Hillary and Obama said was unfair.
Before we go too far, I'd point out what McCain actually said was just as bad. He was advocating permanent bases, something which or government has carefully avoided saying, while simultaneously allowing for an open-ended war in Iraq. Not exactly innocuous.
(Posted by Ewan)