WASHINGTON -- Asked at a New Hampshire campaign stop about possibly staying in Iraq 50 years, John McCain interrupted -- "Make it a hundred" -- then offered a precise analogy to what he envisioned: "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so." Lest anyone think he was talking about prolonged war-fighting rather than maintaining a presence in postwar Iraq, he explained: "That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
And lest anyone persist in thinking he was talking about war-fighting, he told his questioner: "It's fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintained a presence in a very volatile part of the world."
There is another analogy to the kind of benign and strategically advantageous "presence" McCain was suggesting for postwar Iraq: Kuwait. The U.S. (with allies) occupied Kuwait in 1991 and has remained there with a major military presence for 17 years. We debate dozens of foreign policy issues in this country. I've yet to hear any serious person of either party call for a pullout from Kuwait.
Why? Because our presence projects power and provides stability for the entire Gulf and for vulnerable U.S. allies that line its shores.
The desirability of a similar presence in Iraq was obvious as long as five years ago to retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, one of Barack Obama's leading military advisers and his campaign co-chairman. During the first week of the Iraq War, McPeak (a war critic) suggested in an interview that "we'll be there a century, hopefully. If it works right." (Meaning, if we win.)
Why is that a hopeful outcome? Because maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq would provide regional stability, as well as cement a long-term allied relationship with the most important Arab country in the region.
As McPeak himself said about our long stay in Europe, Japan and Korea, "This is the way great powers operate." One can argue that such a presence in Iraq might not be worth the financial expense. A legitimate point -- it might require working out the kind of relations we have with Japan, which picks up about 75 percent of the cost of U.S. forces stationed there.
Alternatively, one might advocate simply bolstering our presence in Kuwait, a choice that would minimize risk, albeit at the sacrifice of some power projection. Such a debate would be fruitful and help inform our current negotiations with Baghdad over the future status of American forces.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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