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McCain must explain his Iraq vigil

If McCain doesn't envision a 100-year American front-line combat presence in Iraq, how long is he willing to keep U.S. forces in that role?
/ Source: National Journal

The firefight over John McCain's long-term intentions in Iraq flared again this week when the Democratic National Committee aired a television ad targeting his assertion at a New Hampshire town meeting in January that it would be "fine with me" if U.S. troops stayed in Iraq for "maybe 100" years.

Republicans, as they have for months, accused Democrats of distorting McCain's words by omitting his caveat that he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq that long only if they "are not being injured or ... killed." Since his original declaration, McCain has repeatedly insisted he doesn't foresee a century of American combat in Iraq but rather a military presence "after the war is over," as the United States has maintained in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

But even if, as it appears, that was McCain's meaning, his New Hampshire statement still raises critical questions about his Iraq plans that Americans deserve to have answered before Election Day.

First, if McCain doesn't envision a 100-year American front-line combat presence in Iraq, how long is he willing to keep U.S. forces in that role? So far, all he has said is that the United States should withdraw only if it concludes that the Iraq mission is unachievable or when it has achieved success, which he defines as the establishment of "a peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state."

McCain hasn't said how long he would keep fighting to reach that demanding goal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of McCain's closest Senate allies, recently said he thinks that McCain would maintain current U.S. troop levels in Iraq through his entire four-year presidential term if military commanders recommended that course to maintain stability there.

McCain has not said when, but he has pledged that Iraqi units will eventually assume the major combat responsibility. That prompts the next question McCain should address: What would then become the mission for the U.S. forces he wants to maintain in Iraq? McCain hasn't specified. But he has suggested that their job would be to deter external aggression, much as in South Korea where our troops "served as a buffer against invasion from North Korea."

In that example, however, the U.S. and South Korea agreed that North Korea posed a threat. The American troop presence in Germany and Japan long rested on a similar agreement about the potential danger from the Soviet Union, notes Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy.

Although the U.S. considers Iran the most pressing external danger to Iraq, "the overwhelming majority of Iraqis don't see Iran as a threat," Daalder says. "They see it as a partner." If a threat from Iran isn't the motivation, Al Qaeda might provide the most likely justification for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. But if Al Qaeda remains a threat there, conditions would likely not meet McCain's standard that American troops are no longer at risk.

Indeed, skeptics raise another question that fundamentally challenges McCain's analogy to Germany, Japan, and South Korea: Could U.S. troops ever be accepted in Iraq as completely as they have been in those societies? Or would our forces always be a target in Iraq, not only for Al Qaeda but also for the contending domestic factions? As Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean asked this week, "Does anyone think ... if you keep our troops in Iraq for a hundred years, people won't be ... setting off suicide bombs?"

In an interview, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, echoed that concern. Zinni said that McCain is right that America needs the capacity to respond to regional threats. But Zinni believes that it should do so with a light and flexible force stationed outside Iraq, probably in Kuwait. "Keeping a large formation of combat troops [in Iraq] is a mistake," he says, "because you are going to be seen as an occupier, and a colonial power, and you are going to attract people that will want to attack those forces."

Five years ago this week, President Bush exulted beneath a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. McCain, under any interpretation of his words, is proposing another mission in Iraq--a long vigil--that would extend for decades. With the stakes so high, it's not enough for him to accuse critics of twisting his meaning: He needs to more clearly explain it himself.