John McCain was on Letterman Wednesday night and announced (or pre-announced) that he’s running for president. There was a moment a few years back when I felt pretty good about McCain. You know: stand-up guy, moderate, rational, independent thinker, as demonstrated by his willingness to go against Bush, Cheney and company on the issue of the United States employing torture against detainees enemy combatants. McCain managed to rally veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress for his anti-torture bill and got Bush to publicly acquiesce and sign the thing. Here’s what’s strange about that story, though, and a hint about what’s wrong with McCain’s quest for the presidency: He uttered not a whisper of public protest when news reports disclosed that Bush had appended a signing statement to the new law that said, essentially, the executive branch would enforce it as it saw fit.
Why would McCain not raise a fuss about that? It’s as if, having made his principled stand, having won his public relations victory, he couldn’t be bothered with confronting Bush’s designs to thwart his work. It’s as if the only way he can imagine becoming president is to be part of the team that’s running things now.
And then, of course, there’s Iraq. McCain not only supports the “surge,” a piece of window dressing designed to buy time, but he has long called for the United States to send a far larger force into Iraq. That’s his answer to the Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney “mismanagement” of the war–an American army big enough to bang heads together and “create the conditions” for peace. I’ll give Letterman credit: He left off fawning long enough to ask McCain a hypothetical question that was at least as probing as what he’d get from the likes of Tim Russert or Katie Couric:
“The country of Iraq is stabilized, the government is now, as you described, stabilized, the violence is now significantly reduced; the net benefit to the United States, beyond Americans have stopped losing their lives there, is what?”
To which McCain responded:
“Probably that we have a functioning democracy or a government that will become a democracy, that there will be oil revenues which will then be used by the Iraqis to build up there own country. And maybe it will spread in the region. You know, there are really only two democracies in the region, Israel and the other is Turkey, in the whole region, and obviously we would like to see that.
“I think I know what you’re getting at, and that is should we have gone in in the first place. There was massive intelligence failures and books have been written about the mismanagement of the war, and I would recommend ‘Fiasco’ and ‘Cobra Two’ or one of these other books. But we are where we are now–we are where we are now–and rather than reviewing all the problems we have, if we withdraw early, every expert I know says it will descend into chaos, sectarian violence and even genocide, so that’s why when I say this may be our last chance to succeed, because Americans are very frustrated and they have every right to be. We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives, over there.”
So, part one of the answer is the same old fairy tale: If we try hard enough, we’ll turn Iraq into a functioning democracy or start the evolutionary process toward democracy in motion (hey, a Republican who believes in evolution!). And maybe it will spread to the other benighted corners of the Middle East, like those governed by our closest Arab allies.
Part two is also getting to be an old saw: If we withdraw, there will be unimaginable violence (senator, check your morning paper). In short, this is the same answer we’d get from Bush, complete with occasional signs of the same fractured syntax (though I note that McCain slipped and said American lives have been wasted in Iraq, which is a heresy among the true believers; if some Democrat had said that, Fox News and the whole right-wing opinion mob would be flaying them alive, the mainstream media would be picking up on it, and a mealy-mouthed clarification/apology would be in the works).
The bottom line is nuts: We’re gonna fight our way out of this, only smarter this time. Don’t ask what it costs, because we can’t afford to fail.