Waving the flag on Iraq -- now in rerun!

McCain's attack on Obama as a defeatist is right out of the Karl Rove playbook. But here's why it won't work.

Published July 29, 2008 11:33AM (EDT)

Last week, I thought that I had woken up in "Groundhog Day." George W. Bush was raving about the glorious success of the "surge," attacking his opponents as defeatists, and promising that victory was just around the corner. Then I realized that it wasn't Bush at all, but John McCain. The lines were exactly the same, but the guy speaking them was older, crankier and running for president.

Who hit the replay button on this bad movie?

We had this national debate years ago, and the war party lost. And everything that has happened since then has made it even clearer that the Iraq war has been one of the greatest catastrophes in American history. Americans can't wait to get rid of Bush, and they want out of Iraq. Yet McCain has decided to run as a bad imitation of Bush -- and polls show that he still has a fair chance of winning.

Last week offered one of the more surreal disconnects in recent political history. Barack Obama swept triumphantly through the Middle East and Europe, delivering inspiring speeches to vast crowds and being greeted as a virtual president-elect. Meanwhile, McCain was wandering around in Schmidt's Sausage Haus und Restaurant in Ohio, singing a medley from Bush's greatest hits, and all but accusing Obama of treason. And McCain's stale-bratwurst strategy seemed to work: He got a bump in the polls in three key swing states.

The right-wing press, desperate to diminish Obama's star turn in Europe, made much of the fact that salt-of-the-earth Americans, not effete pointy-heads from the Continent, will decide who the next president will be. They're clearly hoping that songwriter Randy Newman's "Political Science," in which a nameless, God-fearing American urges his countrymen to "drop the big one and see what happens," speaks for middle America. Some of the more hysterical pundits even claimed to see evidence of fascism in the mass outpouring of support for Obama in Berlin, somehow forgetting that they themselves had demanded that Americans don brown shirts and support our president in the aftermath of 9/11.

It's hard to predict how Obama's trip will play out with voters in November. But McCain has obviously decided that whatever flashy stunts Obama pulls off, his own best strategy is to stay on message -- and that means turning the Iraq lemon into lemonade. The war may be hugely unpopular, warmonger-in-chief Bush's approval rating may be approaching Vlad the Impaler's -- no matter! Attack! The best defense is a good offense! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

It's an audacious strategy, and it could prove to be disastrous. Pickett's charge did not succeed for the Confederacy at Gettysburg. But it's right out of the Karl Rove playbook -- and if recent history has taught us anything, it's never to underestimate Karl Rove.

Rove, and his star pupil Bush, perfected a political tactic reminiscent of the old Green Bay Packer power sweep: Everyone knows it's coming, but they still can't stop it. And McCain is too smart not to stay with a proven winner -- especially because he doesn't have any choice.

The Rove play is based on three things: wrapping yourself in the flag, never admitting you're wrong, and impugning your opponent. These three tactics have one thing in common: They are aimed at the lowest common denominator of the American people. Under normal circumstances, they have only limited effectiveness. But when the nation is at war, they are extremely potent -- as John Kerry and the Democrats found out in 2004. And McCain is going to use them and use them and use them.

McCain's repeated claims that we are succeeding in Iraq and must stay the course to final "victory," and his attacks on Obama, are textbook examples of the Rove-Bush-GOP tactic. Take the recent speech in which McCain attacked Obama for not supporting the "surge." "If Sen. Obama had prevailed, American forces would have had to retreat under fire. The Iraqi army would have collapsed. Civilian casualties would have increased dramatically," McCain intoned. "Al-Qaida would have killed the Sunni sheikhs who had begun to cooperate with us, and the 'Sunni Awakening' would have been strangled at birth. Al-Qaida fighters would have safe havens, from where they could train Iraqis and foreigners and turn Iraq into a base for launching attacks on Americans elsewhere. Civil war, genocide and wider conflict would have been likely."

McCain then went on to sketch an even more apocalyptic vision of what would have happened if America had been led by the weak and traitorous Obama instead of the brave and resolute Bush:

Above all, America would have been humiliated and weakened. Our military, strained by years of sacrifice, would have suffered a demoralizing defeat. Our enemies around the globe would have been emboldened. Terrorists would have seen our defeat as evidence America lacked the resolve to defeat them. As Iraq descended into chaos, other countries in the Middle East would have come to the aid of their favored factions, and the entire region might have erupted in war. Every American diplomat, American military commander and American leader would have been forced to speak and act from a position of weakness.

McCain's speech obviously appeals to the GOP's immovable base, red, white and blue ostriches for whom the very idea that America could ever wage a stupid, immoral or self-destructive war is tantamount to treason. But for McCain to win, he has to go beyond his base and convince independents and swing voters. Two things are in his favor here: First, the war is still going on, which mutes criticism of it. And second, polls show that voters still see Obama as a riskier choice, particularly on national security.

On the surface, then, McCain's tactic of attacking Obama on the war makes sense. He gets to simultaneously pose as a tough guy and attack Obama where he's weakest. Moreover, he knows that Obama may decide that it's too risky to attack McCain's own weak spot, his support of the war in the first place. Obama has attacked McCain directly on the war, but that was before he won the Democratic nomination and began moving to the center.

But what worked for Bush in 2004 may not work for McCain in 2008, for three reasons. First, McCain's specific arguments about the success of the "surge" and the alleged dangers of Obama's approach are simply factually unconvincing. Second, they inadvertently draw attention to the larger issue of McCain's support for the war. And finally, they require voters to believe that the United States can still "win" in Iraq.

If enough American voters are ill-informed about the war, still confusedly think it may have been a good idea to start it, and believe it is winnable, McCain could win. The first stipulation may be true, but not the second and third -- and that's why even the Rove power play may not save McCain.

McCain's defense of the surge betrays a complete inability to grasp the bloody, ugly complexities of the civil war the United States touched off by invading Iraq. (He also has difficulty in keeping the most rudimentary facts straight, as when he falsely asserted that the Anbar awakening "began" during the surge.) As Juan Cole pointed out in a thorough refutation of McCain's surge argument, the main reason that violence in Iraq has declined to the still-hideous levels of 2005 is probably that Shiite militias, inadvertently enabled by U.S. troops, carried out a successful mini-genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Sunni residents in Baghdad. Once you've killed or expelled all those who belong to the evil tribe, there's no reason to keep killing. For McCain to praise the surge as leading to "victory" in Iraq is like praising a foreign power for "pacifying" Rwanda by alternately backing the Hutus and the Tutsi. (It goes without saying that McCain has nothing to say about the moral responsibility we bear for the nightmare in Iraq.)

At a deeper level, insofar as the surge and other factors played a role in reducing the violence -- and as Cole points out, it's impossible to know how large a role the surge itself played -- the conclusions one should draw from this are precisely the opposite from those drawn by McCain. For the factors that led to a lower level of violence in Iraq -- the completed ethnic cleansing, the increase in U.S. troop strength, bribery, Sunni revulsion at al-Qaida's horrific tactics, the Mahdi Army's decision to stand down -- represent the reverse of the simplistic, raising-the-flag-on-Iwo-Jima vision trumpeted by McCain and the Bush administration. When America has made progress in Iraq -- and all claims of "progress" must be measured against the fact that the war we started essentially destroyed the country -- it has been primarily due not, as war mythology would have it, to U.S. troops killing evil jihadists, but to far murkier factors -- the unintended consequences of ugly actions, canny political maneuverings, and back-room deals with deeply flawed players.

What has been widely overlooked, by both defenders and critics of the surge, is that these are precisely the kinds of complex, sometimes morally ambiguous responses that those of us who opposed the war in the first place called for as a strategy for fighting violent jihadists. Painstaking police work, diplomacy with sometimes unpleasant actors, good intelligence, the skillful use of carrots and sticks, knowing the local terrain, avoiding self-defeating moral posturings -- these things don't fit into bombastic presidential speeches about our heroic duty to fight the "axis of evil," but they have one advantage: They actually work. Which is not to say that they bring "victory," because there are no victories here.

McCain's claim that "al-Qaida fighters would have safe havens" in Iraq is even more pathetic -- and it draws attention to the most catastrophic consequence of the war for the United States. For it was precisely the invasion of Iraq that created safe havens for al-Qaida in Iraq. Before the invasion, of course, there were no jihadists in Iraq. Again, this is a historical fact that McCain simply cannot afford to acknowledge: If he did, he would have to address why he supported the war in the first place. And that's a subject best left shrouded in patriotic mists.

But McCain's argument completely devours itself when he outlines the supposedly apocalyptic consequences of a world without the surge. "A humiliated and weakened America. A military, strained by years of sacrifice, suffering a demoralizing defeat. Our enemies around the globe emboldened." These are indeed ugly consequences, but they have already happened-- and they happened as a direct result of the unprovoked war that McCain supported. McCain's argument resembles that of a man who, having driven his car at 100 miles an hour into a school bus, insists that those who want to take away his license are making it hard for him to save the survivors.

Lately, McCain's talking points have become even more nonsensical. He is forced to parrot his tough-guy line even when it has been rendered inoperative by realities on the ground. McCain and his mouthpieces mechanically continue to paint Obama as a traitor who "would rather lose a war that we are winning than lose an election." But it's hard to maintain your heroic pose as a fearless leader who will keep the troops in place until victory when your own allies keep throwing banana peels under your feet, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did when he said he concurred with Obama's call for a U.S. troop withdrawal in 16 months. Oops!

The same thing happened with Iran: McCain was just hitting the chorus of his stirring rendition of "bomb bomb Iran" when the Bush administration abruptly abandoned its dream of attacking the mullahs. McCain was left croaking all alone, like a tone-deaf backup singer cruelly exposed when a sadistic soundman turns down the rest of the mix. How can you rally the troops to fight evildoers when your fellow generals are inviting the evildoers to tea?

But the mere fact that McCain's arguments are flawed, his grasp of facts shaky, and his fear-mongering self-indicting does not necessarily mean that they won't work. After all, Bush won reelection in 2004 using the same arguments -- and his opponent wasn't someone who could be painted as a Muslim terrorist half-breed, but a decorated white war hero.

McCain's best hope is that neither the media nor the American people possess much memory. (It's a chicken-and-egg question as to which of the two is more responsible for this.) Once news breaks, it disappears, to be replaced by the next day's news. Reality has no tail; events have no context. Powerful forces push us toward living in a continuous now, like someone suffering from brain damage, or from a culture so rudimentary its language lacks words for the past.

On Monday, it's revealed that the Bush administration lied us into war. On Tuesday, we learn that most of Iraq's doctors have fled or been killed. On Wednesday, we learn that the U.S. government secretly approved torture. On Thursday, we learn that the war has emboldened jihadists and led to a dramatic rise in terror attacks worldwide. On Friday, we learn that the war is costing us $300 million a day. But on the next Monday, when we learn that violence has declined to merely horrific levels in Iraq, all that earlier information has disappeared, and so McCain can begin attacking Obama for being an appeaser all over again.

Yes, it worked for Bush. But times have changed. Our national memory may be spotty, but it's not gone. Some things stick.

In the end, though, what may really doom McCain is not what Americans believe in or know, so much as what they no longer believe in. And it seems clear that most Americans no longer believe in "victory." There have been too many moments when winning in Iraq was right around the corner. The boy has cried wolf once too often. McCain's demand that we fight until a final victory may have sounded inspiring when people still believed the Iraq war could be won, but now it sounds increasingly like Gen. Custer's last speech to the troops as the Sioux closed in at the Little Bighorn. It's not a cry you follow unless you're a fanatic or a jihadist. Which is why I believe that in November, the American people will finally declare this endless argument, and this endless war, over.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama George W. Bush Iraq War John Mccain R-ariz.