Not only is Ali Frick write to point out that John McCain wasn’t nearly as strong a dissenter from Bush’s tactical vision in Iraq as his campaign likes to say, but it can’t be emphasized enough how purely tactical his criticisms of the Bush administration were. Tactics are, of course, an important subject. But Iraq represents a fundamental error of strategy — in short, a bad idea, not a good idea that was poorly implemented — and on the strategic issues McCain has differed from Bush only insofar as McCain got to these ideas first and adheres to them more rigidly than Bush does.
He was the original political defender of “rogue state rollback” as the centerpiece of America’s approach to the world, after all, and as best one can tell he still sees things this way and still sees the specter of appeasement lurking behind every effort to deal with problems constructively.
This morning on NBC’s Meet the Press, Carly Fiorina, surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), defended McCain’s record on Iraq. She insisted he had stood up to President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly, and declared those who say McCain was “aligned” with Bush on Iraq are trying to “change history”:
John McCain stood up against George Bush and Don Rumsfeld in the prosecution of the Iraq war for many years. … To say that John McCain was aligned with President Bush on the prosecution of the war in Iraq is to change history.
It is Fiorina who is trying to change history. From the very start, McCain has enthusiastically embraced Bush’s Iraq war policy:
“I think that Blix’s report will be fairly definitive. But Mr. Blix has made a lot of reports over the years, and I think the judgment made by the United States of America will — and the president of the United States — will prevail here.” [NBC, 2/12/03]
“I believe as strongly today as ever, the mission [in Iraq] was necessary, achievable and noble. For his determination to undertake it, and for his unflagging resolve to see it through to a just end, President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration.” [GOP Convention, 8/30/04]
“The fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I’ve been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.” [Meet the Press, 6/19/05]
MR. GREGORY: Do you, do you have confidence in the president and his national security team to lead the war at this stage?
SEN. McCAIN: I do. I do. I have confidence in the president and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation. [Meet the Press, 8/20/06]
“I’m sticking with the president in this respect [on Iraq]. This is our last chance. The consequences of failure are catastrophic.” [CNN, 2/13/07]
“I am proud of this president’s strategy in Iraq.” [Receiving Bush's endorsement, 2/13/08]
Am I the only one who thinks it’s strange that precisely at the moment when we’re seeing punditocratic cries for Barack Obama to acknowledge the “facts on the ground” in Iraq, and reject his timetable plan the actual facts on Iraq are developing in the direction of Iraqi insistence on a timetable? Well, I can’t be the only one. Meanwhile, more facts on the ground include what appears to be the definitive breakdown of SOFA/SFA negotiations. And as Dr. Irak explains, this failure is plausibly the result of the Bush administration’s opposition to timetables:
Because talks were not occurring against the backdrop of negotiating a U.S. withdrawal and a clear signal that we did not want to have the rights and prerogatives to stay in Iraq indefinitely, two things happened:
1. Iraqi sovereignty and nationalist anxieties were exacerbated by the perception that we were negotiating a permanent occupation (regardless of how many times the administration asserted it wasn’t seeking permanent bases). This made it difficult for Iraqi officials–including those that wanted a long-term agreement negotiated under Bush–to sign on to anything.
2. U.S. negotiators framed the whole thing to the Iraqis as us wanting to negotiate a way to stay in Iraq. This reversed the leverage in negotiations, making us appear increasingly desperate to give the Iraqis concessions so we could stick around indefinitely. This made it look like we needed them more than they needed us, which is completely back-ass-ward.
I’m not sure I would chalk this all up to appearances, but by and large that’s the right way to think about it. In the context of a framework for withdrawal, US military cooperation with the Iraqi government during the interim is viable. But in the Bush/McCain context with the shadow of endless occupation on the table, it’s not possible to work anything out. Now that said, the United States is a huge rich powerful country and I’m sure a McCain administration determined to stay in Iraq indefinitely could prevail upon the Iraqi government to see things their way. But that approach cuts against the grain of the actual situation.
In her telling, a major incentive for Mr. Cheney’s descent into the dark side was to cover up for the Bush White House’s failure to heed the Qaeda threat in 2001. Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the F.B.I.’s Osama bin Laden unit until 2002, told Ms. Mayer that Sept. 11 was “all preventable.” By March 2000, according to the C.I.A.’s inspector general, “50 or 60 individuals” in the agency knew that two Al Qaeda suspects — soon to be hijackers — were in America. But there was no urgency at the top. Thomas Pickard, the acting F.B.I. director that summer, told Ms. Mayer that when he expressed his fears about the Qaeda threat to Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney general snapped, “I don’t want to hear about that anymore!”
After 9/11, our government emphasized “interrogation over due process,” Ms. Mayer writes, “to pre-empt future attacks before they materialized.” But in reality torture may well be enabling future attacks. This is not just because Abu Ghraib snapshots have been used as recruitment tools by jihadists. No less destructive are the false confessions inevitably elicited from tortured detainees. The avalanche of misinformation since 9/11 has compromised prosecutions, allowed other culprits to escape and sent the American military on wild-goose chases. The coerced “confession” to the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to take one horrific example, may have been invented to protect the real murderer.
The biggest torture-fueled wild-goose chase, of course, is the war in Iraq. Exhibit A, revisited in “The Dark Side,” is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an accused Qaeda commander whose torture was outsourced by the C.I.A. to Egypt. His fabricated tales of Saddam’s biological and chemical W.M.D. — and of nonexistent links between Iraq and Al Qaeda — were cited by President Bush in his fateful Oct. 7, 2002, Cincinnati speech ginning up the war and by Mr. Powell in his subsequent United Nations presentation on Iraqi weaponry. Two F.B.I. officials told Ms. Mayer that Mr. al-Libi later explained his lies by saying: “They were killing me. I had to tell them something.”