Petraeus Differs with McCain, Palin on Iraq Assessment

September 15, 2008

General Petraeus has a sharply different view from McCain and Palin on the status of the Iraq war.  He is not talking at all in terms of victory and seemed to mock McCain’s statements when he said

“this is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade… it’s not a war with a simple slogan.”

As Patrick Cockburn points out in the linked article, if McCain believes what he is telling the American people, he is dangerously out of touch.

What are the terms of withdrawal from Iraq?

August 22, 2008

I have not been able to find anything but the briefest description of the terms of American withdrawal that are being presented to the Iraqi parliament. Apparently it involves the removal of U.S. troops from cities and towns by next summer. I presume they will retire to the bases in Iraq. A couple of years after that there apparently will be a complete withdrawal. This all subject to conditions that are unclear to me.

By all reports there has been a frenzied effort by th U.S. to get withdrawal terms approved by Iraq. I’m not clear why this u-turn in American policy occurred. It apparently has more to do with an attempt to create a positive legacy for Bush, as its impact on the election appears to be ambiguous. McCain claims that it proves that the surge worked and Obama would have sacrificed victory in Iraq and Obama notes that the withdrawal is very close to what he has been advocating all along.

I guess that McCain is claiming that we won. His claim of victory in Iraq seems to me very much like Bush’s “mission accomplished” celebration some years ago.

But why are the details of this being kept from the American public? If this is not being kept from us, it at least is not readily accessible.

Here are a few questions in my mind. Are we abandoning the bases in Iraq? Bush was absolutely against this and Obama stridently for it. I believe that this is a significant question insofar as it was the bases in Saudi Arabia were a cause of anti-American sentiment in the region and a motivating factor for Al Qaeda’s activity.

What are the conditions for withdrawal? As every contract lawyer knows an agreement’s conditions can render an agreement virtually meaningless or so ambiguous as to be unenforceable or enforceable at will.

In my mind the accord in Iraq is bigger than whatever effect it has on politics here. I’d like to know what is going on.

U.S. and Iraqi Polls

July 17, 2008

Today the New York Times published an article that seems to say that Iraqis do not favor U.S. troop withdrawal. Toward the end you read that there was an extremely limited sampling of opinions. The Times just published a more scientific poll that says the Iraquis want a withdrawal of U.S. troops by a 2 to 1 margin. This article also fails to mention that the Iraqi parliament, as well as Prime Minister al-Maliki, are calling for withdrawal. (The linked Christian Science Monitor article says that talks are on-going.) By all authority I have been able to find there has been ardent support for withdrawal among Iraqis since at least 2006 and strong support prior to that.

American polls are interesting. A strong majority has favored withdrawal for a long time. Bush’s handling of the invasion and occupation has for some time been viewed disfavorably by a clear majority. Almost 40% of Americans do not understand that McCain is against a timetable for withdrawal. Despite most people disfavoring his approach to the war, most Americans see McCain as the better commander in chief. Early polls on the two candidates are somewhat confusing.

Osama Bin Laden and Nostradamus

July 8, 2008

Remember ten years ago? When the price of gas was $11 a barrel? That was one of the things that ticked Osama Bin Laden off. (He of course was in the minority of people who supported the invasion of Iraq, as it would eliminate a sworn enemy, Sadam, destabilize the region and inspire opposition to the U.S. As we know, according to our National Intelligence Estimate these things have come to pass.)

But before the invasion the price of gas irked Bin Laden. When asked what the price should be he responded $144 per barrel. It seems that even this ambition has been realized, as the price is now at Bin Laden’s prescribed level.

Bush on Iraq civil war: what?

July 8, 2008

When Bush was asked whether we are in the middle of a civil war instead of fighting terror, his response I found baffling. He seems to say that terrorists are behind the civil war but what does that mean in terms of foreign policy? We will intercede in civil wars instigated by terrorists? I believe I’ve read quite a bit about how this civil war could have been averted with any sort of coherent post-Sadam strategy. In any case doesn’t this policy more or less deprive us of initiative and leave us reacting to terrorists?

McCain’s Foreign Policy: Maverick, Erratic or Machiavellian?

May 11, 2008

I just realized that I know very little of John McCain’s voting record. It’s easy to summarize what I’ve heard: he is an independent thinker, and a maverick. With regard to foreign policy I understand that this policy area is his strength, that he supports the military but compared to administration his military enthusiasm is tempered by concern for human rights and civilian lives. I thought that it would be useful to look at his voting record and thought that I’d do this in separate installments, each addressing one topic. Today I looked at Senator McCain’s voting record on foreign policy issues and found that my understanding did not appear to be accurate.

After two terms in congress McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986. In his first term he became involved in the savings and loan scandal as one of the “Keating Five.” The Senate Ethics Committee neither censured nor exonerated him but found that he engaged in “questionable conduct” that related to corruption charges involving the investigations. After that he seemed to focus on foreign policy and campaign finance reform in public speeches.

In 1990 he and Republican Senator William Cohen had a press conference at which they proposed a significant reduction in defense spending. He proposed a $50 billion reduction by 1995 and a 2% to 4% annual reduction thereafter. He acknowledged that there was no consensus in favor of this position, either Republican or Democrat, and the Defense Secretary Cheney opposed close congressional oversight of the defense budget. This certainly qualifies as a maverick position and it is useful to note that it occured during the Senator investigation of the Keating Five, as its novelty attracted attention and the sentiment of reduced defense spending, as they said at the press conference, was held by the majority of Americans.

Seven months later President Bush announced preparation for the Gulf War and Senator McCain was asked for his comments. He applauded the president’s speech but said that he favored more patience, presumably to explore a nonmilitary solution. When asked about the projected cost of $15 billion, he said that absolutely this should be shared in substantial part by Japan and Germany. He did not explain precisely why they together should pay most of the cost, but he was quite clear that we should not bear this financial burden. This position kept him at least within explanation distance of his call for cutting the defense budget while keeping him in line with his party on the Gulf War.

During the Clinton administration he extolled all of the military action taken by the Reagan and Bush administrations — never mentioning (as far a I could tell) Regan’s Beirut pullout (which seems to have been a key historical event in the eyes of jihadists) nor the Iran Contra debacle. At the same time he became a sharp critic of Clinton’s use of the military. The criticism that he repeated in a number of speeches was that Clinton failed to articulate a clear policy regarding the use of the military; Clinton did not define precisely when military involvement was appropriate, leaving the use of the military somewhat haphazard.

This seems like a fair criticism of Clinton, but it seems quite partisan in light of his praise of Reagan’s use of the military, and it seems disingenuous in light of our country’s stark need for an honest explanation of our current situation. It seems to me that each one of these statements could be applied with a great deal more force today, but Senator McCain seems to have entirely abandoned this approach, as he abandoned reducing the defense budget.  In fact his position now is the opposite of what he advocated during Clinton’s administration.  He has no problem with an open ended war in Iraq, he does not advocate the need for a clear policy and articulation of national interest in this military action.  Precisely how does he distinguish the Mideast’s need for our military from the need in the Balkans a few years ago?
Anyway McCain in 1998 seems to have been spoiling for a run at the nomination when he made a presidential sounding speech about foreign policy. This was perhaps intended to be the sort of thing that he had been criticizing Clinton for having failed to do. In this speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

McCain posits that the core of American foreign policy is that “universal human values exist and must be reflected in the way government and people relate to one another.” He went on to say that the first principle is to solidify relationships with countries and international institutions that embody our values, such as the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshal Plan and NATO. While acknowledging that Bosnia engaged our values but said that it promoted our national interests only to a limited degree. He criticized our intervention there as being open-ended. He criticized the Clinton administration for not having a clear strategy on Iraq.

He picked the Iraq theme up on a floor speech in 1998. There he said that Iraq’s violations of U.N. resolutions could not be tolerated. “The time to talk may be over.” This is a little bit odd as Israel has violated more resolution than Iraq. The U.N. resolution argument seems like a justification for whatever you want to do, as it turned out to be in Iraq. In this speech McCain said that the elimination of Saddam Hussein was all that was needed to establish long term stability in the country. (I have heard him say recently that he did not ever take this position, but there it is.)

It seems to me that there has been a gap between what Senator McCain says and how he votes. (I by no means think that this is peculiar to him, but it is important to know how his voting record deviates from his talk and reputation.)

McCain spoke out prominently against torture when the topic came up in Congress a couple of years ago. This of course related to the central tenet of his 1998 foreign policy speech. In 2006, he neglected to vote against a bill to stop funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council. That same year he declined to support legislation emphasizing the country’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions. This of course made his talks against torture seem hollow.

In 2001 and 2003 he opposed tax cuts saying that they were unwarranted with increases in spending, as he talked in the 2000 primaries. He famously said in 2003 that it was immoral to cut taxes while at war.  This voting followed his defeat by Bush in the 2000 primaries and is at least by many attributed to some hostility over the campaign tactics that he complained about during the debates, particularly South Carolina. It appears to me though to be consistent with what he was saying during the primaries. Since then if has been uniformly in favor of all tax cuts and claims that our increases in defense spending over the last eight years must be significantly increased next year and in years afterwards.

In recent years he has supported every Iraq-related legislation backed by the administration. I include in this category his consistent refusal over the years of this administration to support veterans: in 2001 he voted against increasing medical care, favored legislation in 2004 to increase the tax burden on veterans, 2006 saw him again opposing increased medical benefits and funding for Department of Veteran Affairs. With respect to the troops he has opposed funding for equipment for the National Guard in 2003, for safety equipment for Iraq and last year voted against legislation assuring rest time between deployments. He has voted against all legislation recommending reduction of forces.

I cannot explain all these different positions but it seems to me that they all have one thing in common, political expedience.