Commentary

Rapid Reaction: McCain’s Folly

The Republican National Committee just circulated an outraged e-mail to potential contributors accusing Democrats of distorting John McCain’s position on Iraq. McCain gave his political opponents ammunition earlier this year when he encountered a question at a political rally about the possibility that U.S. troops might have to stay in Iraq for fifty years. McCain’s flippant response was “make it a century.”

Republicans have a point when they charge that critics have taken his comment out of context. The senator made it clear in subsequent remarks that he was not proposing turning the Iraq conflict into the twenty-first century’s version of the Hundred Years War. Rather, he was suggesting a reduced, long-term U.S. military presence once Iraq became stable and peaceful. His model for that strategy is the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, which is now in its fifty-fifth year following the armistice that ended the Korean War.

It is unfortunate that Democrats have chosen to distort McCain’s proposal, because the measure is already dreadful on so many levels that no distortion is needed.

First, his assumption that Iraq will become sufficiently peaceful to accommodate an indefinite U.S. presence is highly dubious. Iraq is nothing like South Korea (or Germany and Japan, examples that McCain has cited on other occasions). South Korea is a cohesive society that welcomed U.S. military protection from communist North Korea, which had already created a bloodbath on the Korean peninsula in a failed attempt to compel reunification. Conversely, Iraq is a fractious state with a weak sense of nationhood, and the U.S. military presence there is extremely controversial—to put it mildly.

American forces in South Korea have never had to confront an armed insurgency or the ever-present prospect of civil war between ethno-religious factions. The situation in Iraq is obviously not comparable. When one thinks of a long-term occupation of Iraq (even with reduced forces), a closer analogy is the dangerous and frustrating British mission in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, not the placid U.S. mission in South Korea.

Second, even if McCain were right that Americans in Iraq would not have to face the constant threat of injury or death, his proposal is still unwise. He holds up the prospect of America acquiring yet another parasitic security client as though it were a good thing.

His invocation of South Korea as a model highlights the fallacy of his approach. Washington has provided a lucrative defense subsidy to South Korean taxpayers for more than half a century. Today, South Korea has twice the population and an economy forty times larger than North Korea, its only plausible enemy. Yet South Korea remains heavily dependent on the United States for its security and shamelessly free-rides on the U.S. defense commitment. That is a wonderful deal for South Korean taxpayers, but not so much for their American counterparts. Why Senator McCain would want to add Iraq to an ever-growing roster of similar U.S. security clients defies comprehension.

Third, McCain’s blithe suggestion of a hundred-year U.S. presence in Iraq ignores the probable reaction in the Muslim world. The good senator apparently assumes that Muslims do not have access to the internet and, therefore, will be unaware of his proposal. The reality is that McCain’s idea is the perfect recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups. They repeatedly charge that the United States is determined to be the imperial hegemon in their region and to undermine their civilization.

It is unfortunate that Democrats have chosen to distort McCain’s proposal, because the measure is already dreadful on so many levels that no distortion is needed. ”

McCain’s “one hundred years in Iraq” banner gives those allegations credibility and puts moderate Muslims on the defensive. His flippant suggestion does enormous damage to America’s already fragile reputation in the Islamic world.

Unfortunately, Senator McCain’s ill-conceived strategy regarding a long-term presence in Iraq is indicative of his broader foreign policy style. The man repeatedly shoots from the hip. Another, perhaps even more troubling, example was his musical “joke” at a rally last year in which he sang “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys song Barbara Ann.

Foreign policy is serious business, and America needs a president who carefully considers proposals before expressing them publicly. John McCain lacks that good judgment. Democrats may have distorted his Iraq troop proposal, but his actual proposal should be enough to alarm all Americans.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including most recently, Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (forthcoming, June 2008).