On the campaign trail, John McCain has retreated on immigration, changed his mind on tax cuts and admitted economics is not his strong suit. But all that's unimportant, we are told, because he was Right On Iraq -- back at the beginning, when he endorsed the invasion, and again over the past year, when he has stoutly supported the surge. So, whichever Democrat he faces, the November election could be a referendum on the Iraq war and his support for it.
If so, that may not be a plus for McCain. McCain has been consistent about Iraq, in the sense of being consistently wrong. If the American people get a long look at what he's said and a clear picture of our fortunes in Iraq, he may yearn for the days when he was being pilloried for offering "amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
McCain portrays himself as uniquely clear-eyed about the war. In fact, those eyes have often been full of stars. When Army Gen. Eric Shinseki forecast that more troops would be needed for the occupation, McCain didn't fret. Shortly before the invasion, he said, "I have no qualms about our strategic plans." As the online magazine Salon reports, he predicted the war would be "another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America."
He brags now that he criticized Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the occupation. But McCain didn't declare "no confidence" in him until a year and a half after the invasion. And let's not forget the day he took a stroll through a Baghdad market, guarded by attack helicopters and 100 soldiers in full combat mode, to prove how safe Iraq was. The following day, 21 Iraqis were abducted from the market and murdered.
McCain's attempts to show off his expertise often turn into banana peels. Recently he attacked Barack Obama for saying that in the future, he might send forces back in "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq." Jeered the Arizona senator, "Al-Qaida already has a base in Iraq. It's called al-Qaida in Iraq."
But al-Qaida in Iraq has about as much to do with al-Qaida in Afghanistan as the San Diego Padres have to do with the Catholic Church. It's a separate, independent and largely homegrown group that is focused on slaughtering Iraqi Shiites, not targeting American cities. And here's a newsflash for McCain: It didn't exist until our invasion created conditions favorable to violent insurgency.
It's true that eventually, McCain did call for more troops, and eventually, President Bush agreed. Last January, he announced that he was boosting forces to quell violence -- while telling the Iraqi government to move promptly toward internal reconciliation and power-sharing. All this would produce a stable, democratic Iraq and "hasten the day our troops begin coming home."
More than a year later, security is better. But nothing else is. The Baghdad government has failed to do the things Bush called for, and there is no sign that our troops will be coming home anytime soon, if ever.
Provincial elections, which were supposed to be held last year, remain somewhere over the rainbow. A landmark de-Baathification law turned out to be a scam, with the purported beneficiaries complaining it was even worse than the old policy. Bush said the Iraqi government would assume responsibility for security across the entire country by November 2007. We're still waiting.
The point of the surge was to catalyze rapid progress that would facilitate our departure. But now the Pentagon says that come July, we'll still have more troops than the 132,000 we had before. When Lt. Gen. Carter Ham was asked if the number will fall below 132,000 by the time Bush leaves office, he replied, "It would be premature to say that."
McCain says the current "strategy is succeeding in Iraq." His apparent definition of success is that American forces will stay on in huge numbers as long as necessary to keep violence within acceptable limits. We were told we had to increase our numbers so we could leave. Turns out we had to increase our numbers so we could stay.
Five years after the Iraq invasion, we've suffered more than 30,000 dead and wounded troops, incurred trillions in costs and found that Iraqis are unwilling to overcome their most basic divisions. And no end is in sight. If you're grateful for that, thank John McCain.