The Past is Past, the Present Unsettling, and the Future Frightening

It was something you should have expected – on Wednesday, March 19, 2008, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, which after the first six months morphed into a tense and seemingly permanent occupation, it seems everyone loves John McCain, his approval rating at sixty-seven percent, far higher than Hillary Clinton’s, or Obama’s. It was a day made for him.

Everyone but the folks on conservative talk radio was talking about the war, and there were all his years as a prisoner of war, making up for his being almost last in his class at Annapolis and a hothead, reckless fighter pilot. He came home, served his twenty-plus years in the Senate being a maverick, as they say – doing what he damn well pleased, finally sitting pretty as the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. He has a reputation for being a rebel and for having a quick temper and a foul mouth – maybe not something you want in a commander-in-chief, but that’s just him. He doesn’t like complexity; he’s a tested warrior and doesn’t give in, ever. And he’s the Republican nominee for president, seventy-one years old but full of piss and vinegar. In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that’s how the crusty old grandfather describes himself. It’ll do.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1938, but, unlike McCain, everyone else spent the day in 1968:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 160 people were arrested across the United States on Wednesday as protesters marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq obstructed downtown traffic and tried to block access to government offices.

On Washington’s National Mall, about 100 protesters carried signs that read: “The Endlessness Justifies the Meaninglessness” and waved upside-down U.S. flags, a traditional sign of distress.

“Bush and Cheney, leaders failed, Bush and Cheney belong in jail,” they chanted, referring to U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

There seemed to be a generational divide:

Later, scores of noisy protesters blocked a busy intersection in Washington’s business district. They picketed in front of the offices of The Washington Post and threw red paint on the building that houses the Examiner newspaper and Bechtel National Inc, which has handled major reconstruction projects in Iraq.

In New York, about 30 members of the “Granny Peace Brigade” gathered in Times Square, knitting in hand, to demand troops be brought home now.

“We’re out here to show people that this war is madness. We never should have gotten into this war in the first place,” said Shirley Weiner, 80.

Police in Boston arrested five people who blocked access to a military recruitment center by lying on a sidewalk dressed as slain Iraqi civilians, an Iraqi mourner, a slain U.S. soldier and an American citizen in mourning.

Yes, for a day it was 1968 again – but no Russian tanks rolled into Prague, and Paris was quiet, and no one tried to levitate the Pentagon. The president was there, giving his speech for the day. Here’s the transcript of the speech – we did a good thing and we cannot quit now – and, by the way, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 – and also by the way, no one wants oil prices to rise any more than they have, so stop picking on me.

Over at the Washington Post, Dan Froomkin, provides a comprehensive review of how that went over, starting with CNN correspondent Ed Henry’s instant analysis:

Well, the bottom line is that we once again heard the president five years later bring back that swagger, basically saying “we’ll fight the enemy wherever it makes a stand,” some chest-beating about the US military might, the shock and awe, invoking 9/11 again as he talks about Iraq, something that his critics, just makes them go… get very upset and really fire back at this president. He invoked 9/11 repeatedly about how a failure in Iraq could essentially bring another major terror attack on U.S. soil.

Froomkin cites Karen DeYoung on Post’s front page, explaining how the new White House public-relations strategy, the latest, is essentially to pretend that the first four years of the occupation just never happened:

For a majority of Americans, today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of an Iraq war that was not worth fighting, one that has cost thousands of lives and more than half a trillion dollars. For the Bush administration, however, it is the first anniversary of an Iraq strategy that it believes has finally started to succeed.

Officials now running the U.S. effort express frustration that the gains wrought by their new political, security and economic policies – in particular, sharply reduced violence – are continually weighed against the first four years of the war, when Iraq unraveled in insurgency and sectarian strife.

Yeah, it’s just not fair – people keep looking back at those first five years. What does it matter now (except to the widows)?

But a new public-relations strategy is just tiring. Over at Salon there’s Juan Cole:

Each year of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has been represented by a thematic falsehood. That Iraq is now calm or more stable is only the latest in a series of such whoppers, which the mainstream press eagerly repeats.

… The most famous falsehoods connected to the war were those deployed by the president and his close advisors to justify the invasion. But each of the subsequent years since U.S. troops barreled toward Baghdad in March 2003 has been marked by propaganda campaigns just as mendacious.

So for your convenience, he lists what he sees as lies that the press just ate up:

Year 1’s big lie was that the rising violence in Iraq was nothing out of the ordinary…

In Year 2 the falsehood was that Iraq was becoming a shining model of democracy under America’s caring ministrations…

In Year 3, the Bush administration blamed almost everything that was going wrong on one shadowy figure: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…

In Year 4, as major sectors of Iraq descended into hell, Bush’s big lie consisted of denying that the country had fallen into civil war…

Year 5, the past year, has been one of troop escalation, or the ‘surge.’ (Calling the policy a ‘surge’ rather than an ‘escalation’ is emblematic of the administration’s propaganda.) The big lie is that Iraq is now calm, that the surge has worked, and that victory is within reach.

It does take you back, doesn’t it? We were told that very serious people, who knew far more than we knew, knew that each of these things was quite true, and if we raised an eyebrow, or asked a question, we should hang our heads in shame and admit the truth – that we were, at best, useless and uninformed amateurs, kind of pathetic in our misplaced concern, and at worst traitors, turning on our own nation. That kept most people quiet. It worked. It still works.

So now McCain is promising to carry on what George Bush started – Never Give Up, Never Surrender!  It’s too bad those same words were used in a very funny and smart movie – it was a satire. But that’s his thing. Like the gritty crew in the Steinbeck novel, that’s him – that’s his de facto campaign message. And, if the polls are right, it’s working just fine. No one likes a quitter.

But this is not 1938, nor 1968, and the candidate who keeps suggesting we deal with the here and now, Barack Obama, dropped in at Fort Bragg and gave his own speech. He suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton could not be trusted to end the Iraq war because she only started opposing it when she began her bid for president, but he was not kind to Gramps:

Obama also teased likely Republican nominee John McCain for a foreign policy gaffe Tuesday in which McCain, touring the Middle East, said several times that Iran was training al-Qaida in Iraq. Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country and has been at pains to close its borders to al-Qaida fighters of the rival Sunni sect. After another senator on the trip, Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, whispered in his ear, McCain corrected himself to say Iran was training Shiite militants.

“Maybe that is why he voted to go to war with a country that had no al-Qaida ties,” Obama said to laughter and applause. “Maybe that is why he completely fails to understand that the war in Iraq has done more to embolden America’s enemies than any strategic choice that we have made in decades.”

A fair point, made where President Bush gave his 2005 Independence Day speech, the one where he warned that setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq would only embolden terrorists there and everywhere – and McCain is saying the same thing. The idea is if you like Bush, you’ll like him – and he’s far more willing to go whole-hog into anything at all, sort of Bush squared.

Obama scoffs – “These are the mistaken and misleading arguments we hear from those who have failed to demonstrate how the war in Iraq has made us safer” – but Mark Salter, a senior adviser to McCain, wasn’t impressed:

John McCain wants American forces to come home when our clear and serious interests at stake in Iraq, which nearly 4,000 Americans have given their lives to secure, are truly safe, when al-Qaida is defeated; Iran’s influence is contained, and the potential for a truly cataclysmic civil war in Iraq is remote. That, I think, is what is called “making us safer.”

That’s an interesting list – it could take a few decades to take care of all the items – but this is presented as the honorable thing to do.

Obama contends that we should act on intelligence about top terrorist targets in Pakistan, even if President Pervez Musharraf refuses – you know, get the actual bad guys. Honor is nice. He’s rather pragmatic – but his idea has drawn criticism from Republicans – this young man simply knows nothing.

That was supposed to keep Obama quiet – he should hang his head in shame. But he didn’t – “We have a security gap when candidates say they will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but refuse to follow him where he actually goes.” McCain’s did vow to chase down bin Laden – McCain must be confused.

Is he confused? There was his slip-up on his visit, reported here (and everywhere) – “It’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq. That’s well known.”

It is? In the almost all-out war between the Sunnis, now out of power, and the Shiites, now running things in Iraq as we tell them they should be run, it’s unlikely that the Sunni terrorists blowing up Shiite civilians and Shiite politicians, and sometimes our guys – al Qaeda in Iraq – would travel to Shiite Iran for training. They wouldn’t come back. Pressed by the reporters, who sensed he really stepped in it and wanted to give him a chance to say it right, McCain repeated it – “We continue to be concerned about the Iranians taking Al-Qaeda into Iran and training them and sending them back.”

He fellow-travelers – no, wrong term – the two adoring senators along with him for the trip, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, looked uncomfortable, and Lieberman whispered in his ear. McCain looked stunned and quickly said – “I meant extremists, extremists, no al Qaeda!” You can watch it here – the man doesn’t do details.

That led to this:

Asked about the confusion on NBC News, McCain said: “I corrected it, my comment, immediately. To think that I would have some lack of knowledge about Sunni and Shiite after my eighth visit and my deep involvement in this issue is a bit ludicrous.”

He added: “I just simply misspoke when I said Al-Qaeda, but they (Iranians) are training extremists and they are sending the most lethal kinds of devices in (to Iraq) that are killing Americans. That’s what we should care about.”

Ah, they’re all bad guys, and it was just a senior moment, or something. But Max Bergmann doesn’t think this was a gaffe:  

Many in the media seem willing to dismiss McCain’s statement that Iran is training Al Qaeda as a simple slip of the tongue. This is wrong. McCain did NOT misspeak. If he had simply made the statement once, he could perhaps expect to be given a pass.

But he didn’t just say Iran was training Al Qaeda once. He said it in his initial statement. … He was then asked about it in a follow up question where he repeated it. It is not a simple slip of the tongue if when challenged on the “slip” you then REPEAT IT. [He also repeated it on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show]

That is not a gaffe. That is called believing something that isn’t true. It is called being confused. And being confused about the differences between Shi’a and Sunni, when claiming that you should be elected president of the United States on your foreign policy knowledge and experience, is simply not okay.

But is this really a big deal? Put Iraq aside and think of Iran. This matters, as Ezra Klein notes – “McCain has a fairly aggressive policy take on Iran and the long-time belief that they were an al Qaeda safe-ground may have contributed to his thinking.” The Iranian folks there hate al Qaeda – they were always a pain to the east of them in Afghanistan, and would just as soon they went away. They have other issues – Shiite supremacy. They have no need for Sunni madmen. McCain just doesn’t believe that – they’re all bad guys.

As Matthew Yglesias notes, that distorts things – “Certainly the Iranian nuclear issue would look very different if I thought the Iranian government were training al-Qaeda operatives on a regular basis and working hand-in-glove with them in Iraq.” Yes, it would be completely wrong and lead to some odd strategies. But then we’ve done odd things so far. Why stop now?

Andrew Sullivan, who likes McCain, and respects his knowledge and experience, is having second thoughts:

These repeated gaffes about al Qaeda being helped by Iran are beginning to make me wonder. I assumed he was more cognizant of the complex realities of Iraq than our current president. And it’s staggering to me that it hasn’t even occurred to McCain that exploiting some of the divisions between Shiite and Sunni Islam might actually be a tactic worth considering in our increasingly complex battle over there. Was this more Bush-Rove dumbing-down for the American public? Or is he really that ignorant?

Okay – examine the options. He’s seventy-one and getting and a tad scattered. He’s oversimplifying for the voters – he has calculated that the good-guys bad-guys thing is just easier for them to understand. Or there is the third alternative – he’s just ignorant and confused. Which do you want in a president, assuming you feel any of the three would be okay? That’s an odd choice to have to make.

Out here at UCLA, Mark Kleiman advises Hillary Clinton:


Given McCain’s buffoonish performance in Jordan, wouldn’t this be a good time for Hillary Clinton to say, “Gee, I thought he was ready to be Commander-in-Chief, but it sure doesn’t sound like it. The least we should expect from the President is some basic knowledge about who our enemies are.”

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly agrees – “It’s a twofer! Count me in.”

But the press won’t turn on McCain. In the Media Matters review of all the breaks they cut the guy, there’s this from MSNBC’s Political Director, Chuck Todd:


This was not a one-time slip and so, you know, this just shows you how much bank – how much of the foreign policy experience stuff he’s got in the bank, because had Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over, and would have absolutely hurt them politically. 


Ah, the press says he knows lots, so he knows lots. They have their meme for him – he’s experience and knowledge and guts, all wrapped up in one guy. They decided this many years ago. It saves time now.

Duncan Black explains the problem with that, in short form:

He’s honest, so he cannot lie, he’s supporter of reform, so he cannot be corrupt, and he has “foreign policy experience,” so he cannot be wrong.

Welcome to campaign ’08.

Watch the coverage. They’re struggling with this.

And they obviously will have problems with Obama, as he gets all complicated:


If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss – tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That’s why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue – as he did last year – that we couldn’t leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can’t leave Iraq because violence is down.

… The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America’s enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There’s a lot there. It’s for adults, mainly. And looking at it this way will force the news media to give their useful and favorite memes. That may not work.

And there’s this:

Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have made the same arguments against my position on diplomacy, as if reading from the same political playbook. They say I’ll be penciling the world’s dictators on to my social calendar. But just as they are misrepresenting my position, they are mistaken in standing up for a policy of not talking that is not working. What I’ve said is that we cannot seize opportunities to resolve our problems unless we create them. That is what Kennedy did with Khrushchev; what Nixon did with Mao; what Reagan did with Gorbachev. And that is what I will do as President of the United States.

Kevin Drum comments:

That last sentence is clever, associating himself with three presidents who are widely admired as tough-minded negotiators. It’s a neat play, both rhetorically and substantively.

… Not only was he firm about wanting to leave Iraq (thus addressing Hillary’s exploitation of Samantha Power’s remarks that Obama would “revisit” withdrawal when he became president), but he gave good reasons for wanting to leave.

But can Obama force people to rethink things – or do we go with McCain, ultra-Bush, or Clinton, Bush-lite?

If we go with McCain, Josh Marshall says we’re going with someone unfit for duty:

… this is really just the tip of the iceberg with McCain. In almost every discussion of foreign policy, not just today but in previous years, what stands out is McCain’s inability to see beyond the immediate issues of military tactics to any firm grasp of strategy or America’s real vital interests. His free willingness to commit to a decades-long occupation of Iraq is an example; his push for ground troops to be introduced during the Kosovo War is another. His refusal, almost inability, to grapple with the political failure of the surge is the most telling one if people will sift through its deeper implications.

The idea that fighting jihadists in Iraq or policing the country’s sectarian and ethnic disputes is the calling of this century is one that is belied in virtually everything we see in flux in today’s world and which seems certain to affect us through the rest of our lifetimes and our children’s.

Marshall say McCain cannot see the big picture:

… one of the closest things to a law is that military power is almost always built on economic might. And the former seldom long outlasts the latter. Indeed, countries with sound finances have routinely been able to punch over their weight – Great Britain and the Netherlands during different periods are key examples. So fiscal soundness even over the medium term is much more important than any particular weapons system or basing right.

Then you step back and see the huge number of dollars we’re pouring into Iraq, the vast mountains of capital being piled up in China, the oil-fueled resurgence of Russia, the weakness of the dollar (not only in exchange rate but in its future as a reserve currency), the rising tide of anti-Americanism around the world. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything from John McCain that suggests he’s given serious consideration to any of these issues, except as possible near term military challenges – i.e., is China building a blue water navy to challenge the US, Russian weapons systems, etc.

This is not the man of the moment:

Hillary Clinton has stipulated to McCain’s qualifications as Commander-in-Chief; and Obama, implicitly, does the same. But his record actually shows he’s one of the most dangerous people we could have in the Oval Office in coming years – not just because he’s a hothead in using the military, but more because he seems genuinely clueless about the real challenges and dangers the country is facing. He’s too busy living in the fantasy world where our future as a great power and our very safety are all bound up in Iraq.

But people admire and love him for that. He’s proud to be an American and not subtle. Obama is subtle and smart, Clinton a policy-wonk and a driver – both are less attractive. McCain could win.

On the other hand, over at Hullabaloo, “dday” calls McCain the Klingon candidate:

… let’s make it clear: John McCain doesn’t know a whole lot about foreign policy, just like he doesn’t know anything about energy policy or health care policy or economic policy.

I was at a panel discussion with Ezra Klein over the weekend, and he answered a question about John McCain’s health care plan by saying that “McCain doesn’t care about health care because there’s no honor in it. You can’t storm the hospitals or vanquish the doctors.”

But this is true of every aspect of McCain policy. It’s entirely based on “honor,” like a Klingon, with nothing behind it. We can’t leave Iraq because it would be dishonorable to do so. There’s no nuance or strategy behind that  beyond something like this:

“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’ said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.”

Follow the links – energy, healthcare, economics – the man doesn’t like detail. He assumes we don’t either:

He says things like “Anybody who believes the surge has not succeeded, militarily, politically and in most other ways, frankly, does not know the facts on the ground,” when the commander of forces in Iraq has said the exact opposite. He has no overriding views on foreign policy from a historical perspective, engaging in the same method of taking any position that suited him at the time that has characterized his inconsistency on a host of other issues. And his war cabinet is a group of muddled thinkers who have been historically wrong about Iraq and foreign policy generally, people who say things like “Iraq has sponsored the 9/11 attacks” and that there’s no evidence that the Shi’a won’t get along with the Sunni and 100 other misstatements. They have no fealty to the truth and will continue to bungle around and trying to unify the whole mishigoss under the heading of “honor.”

Well, honor matters. Other things matter too. But there was that poll up top – his approval rating at sixty-seven percent, far higher than Hillary Clinton’s, or Obama’s.

We’re in trouble.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bush, Certainty, Character, Complexity, Foreign Policy, Iraq, Keith Olbermann, McCain, Obama, Presidential Hopefuls, The Power of Narrative, The Sixth Year of the War, The War. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Past is Past, the Present Unsettling, and the Future Frightening


  2. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Remember John McCain’s recent remarks to Barack Obama, something to the effect that “I’ve got some news for Mr. Obama! al-Qaeda IS in Iraq,” he said to peels of laughter, “and it’s called ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq'”?

    He said this before a friendly audience, but one wonders what that crowd would have thought had McCain added that it’s a well known fact that al-Qaeda in Iraq makes regular crossings into Iran for training, then returns to Iraq to fight?

    Exactly! Nobody would care. His supporters are loyal and won’t hold him to actually knowing what he’s talking about. I saw something similar on the 700 Club this morning, with Pat Robertson commenting to someone something about there being “two-percent homosexuals and three-percent lesbians” out there. So who’s going to call him on those made-up numbers, much less that lesbians are homosexuals? Nobody!

    Nobody cares enough about the truth anymore, but especially conservatives. These people are the first to accuse liberals of being relativists, but are the world champs of relativism when it comes to telling the truth. Whenever they encounter a truth they don’t agree with –especially if they think it will harm businesses and the economy — the jury always seems to be “still out.”

    This might help explain President Bush’s remarks on the fifth anniversary of the first Shock and Awe. No surprise that he still thinks going in was a good idea, but there’s that old problem of what to do with the reality that the guy running our country has broccoli for brains, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Although most everyone on the planet knows starting this war was one of the dumbest ideas in modern times, he still thinks history will see him as a hero right out of JFK’s Profiles in Courage for sticking by his guns. If his years in the White House have taught him anything, it’s that as long as you refuse to budge, nobody can touch you.

    And this lesson may have rubbed off on McCain. Why did he say, then repeat several times, this business about it being “common knowledge” that Iran has been training al-Qaeda? Because, after all, as he may have learned from Bush, everyone’s entitled to his opinion and it doesn’t really matter if anyone disagrees with you, because those people are probably just your political opponents anyway, so what do you expect them to say? Although his friends whispering corrections in his ear alerted him to the fact that he may have gone a bridge too far this time, one should not be surprised to see him continue this approach into the White House, if it ever comes to that.

    Maybe he learned this from Bush’s experience, but maybe it also has something to do with the kind of ingrained guts it takes to withstand all those years as a POW — admirable enough that you don’t ever give in to torture, on the one hand, but maybe not so useful a trait when faced with the sorts of decisions you need to make as President.

    This question may sound both crude and rude, but has McCain ever met a war he didn’t like? And has he ever explained to anyone’s satisfaction why he likes this one?

    All this talk of tactics versus strategy reminds me once again of what I find myself thinking every time I see a military man declare himself a candidate for the presidency: We thank you for your service to your country. Now please, just go home.

    (Good column today.)


  3. Rick (from Atlanta) says:



    Firstly, “thinking about” whether we should trust Democrats or Republicans to run our wars, we need to remember that our Democratic presidents tend to win wars (eg, WWI, WWII, Kosovo, to name a few) while Republicans tend to lose them (eg, Vietnam, Iraq, to name a few.)

    Secondly, don’t jump to the conclusion that Americans have forgotten about 9/11 just because they get angry with their government for reacting to 9/11 with the incredibly superfluous act of invading a country that had nothing to do with it.

    If you want to deal with terrorism, you should go after the terrorists — specifically, Osama bin Laden — which is something Barrack Obama favors doing and something George Bush does not. Obama has not, by the way, said (as you claim) that he would “talk diplomatically” with al-Qaeda; in fact, he has said (also contrary to what you claim) he would consider pursuing bin Laden into Afghanistan or maybe even Pakistan. Republicans won’t.

    Whenever you consider what we ought to be doing about Iran, for example, and think you can’t trust the Democrats to do it right, just remind yourself about that stupid invasion of Iraq and how the Republicans have totally screwed up the last seven years or so.

    And think about this: If the Democrats had taken over the White House in 2000, we would not be in any of the messes we’re in today, including Iraq.


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