Annotate This: John McCain at VMI

On April 11, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) visited the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to defend his support of the “surge” tactic in Iraq. Meant to bolster his campaign, McCain’s appearance was not quite the shot in the arm he’d hoped for. The 1,200 cadets were a friendly venue – an important factor if one is a candidate for president. But reporters found that not all of the students agreed with McCain that the “surge” is going to stabilize Iraq sufficiently to allow other post-war programs to function.

McCain’s remarks went beyond the “surge” to encompass other national security issues: the ramifications of a perceived “defeat” in Iraq, U.S. strategy and international security, and how the politics of today might influence the shape of terrorism tomorrow. “Supporting the troops” was another predictable theme. Less predictable was McCain’s reference to the Iraq War as not only necessary but also “just” – a characterization made twice but with a different tone each time.

Senator McCain has consistently supported the Iraq war even while disagreeing with the tactics employed on the ground. Together with his personal history in the Vietnam War, this rock-solid consistency would be hard to sustain if he did not believe the war to be “just.” Yet the phrase “just war,” and its alternative “just cause,” are not verbal constructs readily associated with the Arizona senator. In fact, the first time, he employed either phrase at VMI – in the opening lines of his speech – McCain seemed uncertain. Speaking directly to those in the audience who have served in Iraq, he said they would “know, better than most, whether our cause is just, necessary, and winnable” – as if conceding that the point remained open.

The second usage, near the end of the address, was devoid of all tentativeness: “We who… support this new strategy…have chosen a hard road. But it is the right road. It is necessary and just.” Considering where these references come, McCain seemed to be wielding “just war” theory as moral bookends around his strong support for the White House position on the war.

McCain is the first serious contender to so publicly take a stand on the way forward in Iraq. As such it calls for analysis. Below is an annotation of key portions of McCain’s speech, with special emphasis on his reference to “just war” doctrine.

VMI Speech Analyzed

John McCain: “We still face many difficult challenges in Iraq. That is undeniable. But we have also made, in recent weeks, measurable progress in establishing security in Baghdad and fighting al-Qaida in Anbar province.”

In Baghdad in the early afternoon of the same day that the senator spoke at VMI, a suicide bomber gained access to the Iraqi parliament building in the “heavily fortified” Green Zone. The explosion killed six Iraqis, including one member of parliament, and wounded 22 others. Also in Baghdad the same day, a truck-bomb exploded on the Sarafiya Bridge, one of seven bridges that span the Tigris River and connect the largely Shi’a east with the largely Sunni west neighborhoods. At least 10 people died in that attack, which destroyed two spans of a pre-independence symbol of Iraqi nationalism. Two days later, a second truck bomb exploded on one of the other spans, but the bridge remained intact. Daily attacks had fallen off in the early days of the “surge” as opponents of the presence of the U.S. and coalition forces evaluated the impact of the increased foreign troop presence. The number is again rising back toward the December 2006 average of 185 per day. It is very difficult to consider any of this “progress.”

“But as General Petraeus…attempts to spare the United States and the world the catastrophe of an American defeat…it is [a]…disservice to dismiss early signs of progress…and hope…[that] the politics of defeat will work out better.”

The “catastrophe” in Iraq is not an “American defeat” but the chaos, death, and resentment caused by the current U.S. occupation. Meanwhile, the Iraqis themselves have already dismissed “early signs of progress” by declaring that the new “security plan” is not working. Finally, the counterpoint to Senator McCain’s “the politics of defeat” sound bite is former Australian prime minister Arthur Calwell’s observation: “It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.”

“The United States needs stronger alliances, coalitions, and partnerships worldwide to engage this long and multidimensional struggle. We need to pay careful attention to America’s image and moral credibility. And in this broad effort, the outcome of the war in Iraq will play a pivotal role.”

The United States definitely needs stronger alliances. But before Washington goes off creating new bilateral and multilateral “coalitions of the willing,” it should bend its shoulder to the wheel to move the UN and the plethora of permanent international institutions to perform their duties and responsibilities. Moreover, when new problems arise that the existing organizations cannot fit comfortably within their mandates, the United States, in conjunction with other countries, should either expand one or more existing mandates or create a temporary agency. Working within the world community rather than trying to make an end run around existing institutions would go a long way toward boosting the image and moral credibility of the United States – and this, rather than “winning the war in Iraq,” will be the pivotal event.

The senator then discussed at length his recent trip to Iraq, highlighting the “improved” security that allowed him to walk about in an open-air market in Baghdad and his ability to travel to bases outside the Green Zone to speak with the troops.

Only after the initial photographs and story were published did the truth come out: the “walk” was made possible by the presence of an extensive body guard of 100 soldiers in a convoy of armored wheeled vehicles and two Apache helicopter gunships overhead. Merchants disputed McCain’s assertion that security conditions had improved, suggesting that the senator might have had a different view if he actually lived in Baghdad rather than flying in and out of the country.

“But having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed. To do otherwise would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.”

If, as President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have acknowledged, only 60% of the U.S. troops that are part of the “surge” are in place, any judgment as to the efficacy of this tactic is premature. This is particularly true given that the militias have “gone to ground” to watch what the additional forces do and where they base themselves in order then to develop and implement countermeasures to inflict the most carnage possible each step of the way. The very circumstances in which the “surge” is occurring, particularly the length of time involved in moving the five U.S. combat brigades into position, compromises the purpose and therefore the military utility of the plan. Senator McCain believes that, given his advocacy of steps similar to the surge, he is now honor-bound to ask the U.S. public to give the plan a chance. But again, there is no honor in staying with a policy that is either not being implemented as portrayed to the public (e.g., a “surge” is an overwhelming, rapid build-up) or that, whatever its merits when initially proposed, is no longer appropriate because of changes on the ground in Iraq.

“If the government collapses in Iraq, which it surely will do if we leave prematurely, Iraq’s neighbors…will feel pressure to intervene on the side of their favorite factions.”

Iraq’s neighbors are already intervening, sometimes with surprising pairings. Iran is thought to be supplying substantial support – people, training, funds, weapons –to the Badr Brigades and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi army. Tehran – along with Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordon, and possibly other Gulf states – is also reportedly supplying the Sunni factions as well. The looming battle for control of Kirkuk in the Kurdish north, with its significant minority of Turkomen, could easily devolve into great bloodshed and draw in the Turkish army. Just this past week, Turkey’s chief of staff and Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani exchanged verbal fisticuffs.

“I fear the potential for genocide and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is even worse [than it was in Rwanda].”

Ethnic cleansing has become a fact of life in Iraq, especially in the various neighborhoods of Baghdad and in Iraq’s second city, Basra. Other towns such as Ramadi and Falloujah, which were effectively destroyed and are now being rebuilt, will probably be segregated into “communities” by ethnicity and sect. What was, before the U.S.-led invasion, a common event throughout Iraqi society – inter-sectarian marriage – will become rare except perhaps in the expatriate Iraqi communities. There are an estimated 3.5-4 million refugees and internally displaced persons. With unemployment at a high rate and likely to rise, the hardships that the internal refugees in particular are liable to experience will help perpetuate sectarian hatred. Only the very daring will even consider cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian marriages and those who do so will undoubtedly leave the country immediately.

“I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission.”

The House vote, as with the Senate vote, did not “deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission.” The president’s request for war-fighting funds has been fully met in both versions of the legislation, which a conference committee will reconcile and send to the president for signature or veto. What Congress has done is to further modify the mission by requiring that U.S. combat forces begin preparing to withdraw from “routine” offensive patrols and pre-planned combat actions. Units would retain the right to react to an attack from any quarter as they prepare for and then redeploy away from the region. Troops would still receive their food and shelter, pay and other benefits, bullets and weapons, equipment and body armor – and the Pentagon has the wherewithal to keep the operation running into early July. What the proposed legislation clearly demonstrates is that separating the mission from “support for the troops” is possible.

“Democrats …have the same responsibility I do, to offer support when…the right strategy is proposed and the right commanders take the field.”

Who decides what strategy is “right”? And who decides the identity of the “right commander”? President Eisenhower’s caution about the susceptibility of a president with no military experience, let alone war experience, to the blandishments of the Pentagon and the defense industry applies not only to weapons but to policies that increase the possibility of going to war when there is no political necessity to do so.

“Our defeat in Iraq would constitute a defeat in the war against terror and extremism and would make the world a much more dangerous place.”

Terror is a tactic used by extremists to induce fear in a target population. Leaders who panic and let loose a full-scale military response to terrorist attacks only escalate the significance of groups that succeed in slipping by security precautions. Instead, multinational law enforcement agencies should take the lead in offering a more proportional response.

“We all agree a military solution alone will not solve the problems of Iraq…. But without greater security imposed by the United States military and the Iraqi Army, there can be no political solution.”

The call for the U.S. military to be part of an offensive to “impose” greater security in Iraq completely ignores the fact that the foreign occupation is a major source of the problems in Iraq.

“We all respect the sacrifices made by our soldiers. We all mourn the losses they have suffered in this war. But let us honor them by doing all we can to ensure their sacrifices were not made in vain.”

The Senator then related an incident of heroism by Petty Officer Second Class McLean Swink, a Navy SEAL who risked his life to save others when his unit was ambushed. He continued to fight even though he had suffered a severe head wound – and then walked to the medical evacuation helicopter. When McCain saw Swink at Landstuhl hospital in Germany where the Navy SEAL had been flown, Swink’s message was: “We can win this fight. We can win this fight.”

The sacrifices made and the losses suffered by U.S. soldiers merit the nation’s regard because they were sustained in unselfish service to the nation. But there is a disconnect in logic to then assert that honor would be subverted should the fighting end before the war is “won,” regardless of how many more die or are severely wounded.

“I know the pain war causes…. But I also know the toll a lost war takes on an army and a country. We, who are willing to support this new strategy…have chosen a hard road. But it is the right road. It is necessary and just.”

War, whether “won” or “lost,” carries a heavy toll for all who are caught up in it. Indeed, no one — no group, no country, no nation — can ever “win” a war. Which brings us back to the question of whether a war can ever be identified as “just.”

McCain and Just War Doctrine

Following the Protestant Reformation, secular scholars replaced churchmen like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in elaborating just war doctrine. The 17th-century Dutch diplomat and writer Hugo Grotius melded principles of political and moral conduct with “practical,” real world conditions. He based his approach on the idea of treaties as a form of social contract between nations. War was “just” if it were taken to correct a breach in the status quo as legally defined and agreed between contracting parties. Leaders who take their countries into battle, according to Grotius, can claim just cause if they meet any of the following conditions:

  • to defend against an actual or immediately threatened injury
  • to recover what is legally due
  • to punish a wrong done
  • to prevent the maltreatment of a people by their state

The Bush administration invoked three of these four rationales to justify military actions since September 11, 2001 when the United States clearly suffered “an immediate injury.” But for whatever reason, Senator McCain makes hardly any reference to Afghanistan, where the stronger argument for “just” war exits.

Instead he refers to the semi-autonomous “al-Qaida in Iraq,” which did not exist in March 2003 and did not have any connection to the real target – Saddam Hussein – before the invasion. To this day, al-Qaida remains a trans-national but sub-national presence owning no territory, representing no population, and with no standing to make treaties, the basis for Grotius’ system. So, it is not possible to apply “just war” doctrine to an attack on al-Qaida.

Just War and Iraq

Senator McCain, in choosing to fall in with the administration’s drive to refashion the globe as a collection of peaceful, democratic, free-market, free-trade countries, seems to have accepted the premise that the “war on terror” must be fought until the United States has eliminated every threat to its national security. That is impossible, which therefore means that war in some form will continue without end.

This war-without-end mentality may be the unspoken allure that has moved Senator McCain to reach for the impossible: victory in the war on terrorism. And because victory is impossible in this kind of war – given that the enemy can reemerge at any time and virtually anywhere – the pursuit of victory assumes the aura of a divine quest to which all other considerations are subordinate. When this sense becomes dominant in a nation, war becomes “essential” and “good,” the trademark mentality of fundamentalism the world over.

The irony of the on-going occupation of Iraq by western forces is that the White House has been reduced to the fundamentalist’s “good war” rationale to justify remaining in Iraq: that is, the United States has a duty to remain to minimize fatalities until the Iraqi government is strong enough to defend itself and implement recovery.

The philosophical and moral tragedy that the occupation of Iraq now entails is that the Iraqi people can apply each of Grotius’ four criteria to their daily reality and find “just cause” for their struggle against the coalition troops and even against their “sovereign government.” And every Abu Ghraib, every “drive-by” shooting of unarmed Iraqis by fast-moving U.S. convoys trying to prevent road-side bombings (or to retaliate for U.S. troops killed in explosions) simply reinforces the Iraqi people’s perception that they have their own duty to oppose the occupation.

Senator McCain knows well what war entails – especially the kind of war being conducted in Iraq today. His endorsement of the surge tactic therefore seems less the result of a consideration of “just war” or “just cause” and more a practical calculation of the national and international politics involved. Should the “surge” not meet the pacification objectives set by the administration, McCain might be able to attribute the failure to continued faulty execution of the war plan, an inept and corrupt Iraqi government, or some such combination.

Whatever his choice, Senator McCain will still have to confront how and under what “benchmarks” would he as president conduct the U.S. withdrawal. Just as September 11 and al-Qaida had no chance of bringing about the demise of the United States – and any similar future endeavor will not do so – so too a withdrawal from Iraq without a “clear win” is possible without undermining the U.S. role in the world. What withdrawal under this scenario might do is bury the seemingly recurring tendency of U.S. administrations to act precipitously, unilaterally, and counterproductively with military power when crises loom. It might also bring us closer to the day when, in renouncing armed conflict, the nations of the world will permanently separate the two words, “just” and “war.”

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. His blog is “The Quakers’ Colonel” http://quakerscolonel.blogspot.com/.