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McCain's Painful Dilemma: Iraq as Vietnam 2.0

By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

July 29, 2008

Iraq is, will be, and should be, at the heart of the chasm between the two battling presidential hopefuls as we approach the November election. One candidate sees that war and occupation as part of a larger, permanent crusade, the other as a terrible error that needs to be corrected.

But before analyzing the distinctly different visions of McCain and Obama, it's important to remind ourselves how the U.S. got into this no-win situation and thus have a better idea how to get out. An abbreviated primer, then:

The U.S., taking over from the French colonialists, wound up effectively occupying South Vietnam and, after years of stalemated war, had to leave devoid of victory. Nearly three decades later, the U.S. invaded and occupied another country it had little real knowledge of, Iraq, and is having to prepare itself for leaving that nation in the same manner.

And then there is Afghanistan, another place where a war won't go away. Indeed, it's revving up for another major go; a subtext is whether a much-delayed oil/gas pipeline will be built in that country (or maybe in Iran) to bring energy westward.

To make the discussion even more complex and absurd, there is serious talk in CheneyBush Washington of initiating yet another war, this one against Iran.


One would think that the earlier disastrous experiences of colonialists/occupiers might have provided U.S. leaders with some cautionary warnings: the French in Indochina, the Brits and Russians in Afghanistan. But those geopolitical lessons, time after time, are simply ignored.

In his powerful memoir "Secrets," Daniel Ellsberg, he of "Pentagon Papers" fame, relates how five separate U.S. Presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon) were warned by their closest foreign policy and military advisors that Western countries could never prevail in Vietnam, given the strength and tenacity of post-colonial Vietnamese nationalism and the guerrilla war being waged in its name. The most that could be hoped for, these "best and brightest" presidential advisors said, was an endless stalemate.

Still, Truman and Eisenhower supported the French and, once the French departed in defeat and the U.S. got involved directly, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon continued on anyway, each feeling he could create the conditions for victory where others had failed. The result of this hubris was an absolute FUBAR catastrophe, with more than 58,000 U.S. troops killed, along with an estimated million and a half Vietnamese.


Which, of course, brings us back to Iraq. There was no good reason for bombing, invading and occupying Iraq, but the CheneyBush Administration, powered by an exceptionalist ideology that believed that the U.S. of A, beloved of God and the lone superpower on the planet, could do whatever it wanted and pay little price.

Remember? Iraq was supposed to be a war on the cheap: a quick invasion, happy natives welcoming their liberators, U.S. corporations helping set up the post-war reconstruction for the good of Iraqi society, all that oil in safe Western hands, a U.S.-friendly Iraq serving as a role-model for all the other Muslim countries in the region, etc. etc. Rumsfeld had said it all would be over within six weeks or maybe six months at the outside. Wolfowitz said the limited costs of the war would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished."

Well, we all quickly learned that the scenario didn't unfold the way the Cheney-Rumsfeld neo-cons said it would. The initial invasion itself was quick and successful enough, but Saddam's soldiers melted away into the civilian population, waiting to see if or when they would be required to take up arms against the new bosses.

Here was a proud, highly civilized people under the thumb of culturally-ignorant conquerors who didn't have a clue what was really happening or how to proceed. (See Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone.")  The occupying authority, looking out for U.S. corporations, made sure to freeze out all Iraqi businesses and workers. In addition, hundreds of thousands of former soldiers were turned away from any role in post-war reconstruction, and this army of unemployed young men melded with the anti-occupation resistance force and were joined in this anti-American campaign by a number of jihadists from all over the Greater Middle East. Ouch.


More than 150,000 U.S. troops and nearly that number of mercenaries known as "independent contractors" -- many trigger-happy in their fright, never knowing who was the enemy -- lost the war early for the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians, especially because of their indiscriminate and widescale use of torture and their casual acceptance of civilian "collateral damage." The stalemate war was on. Vietnam 2.0.

The U.S. occupying force made sure to protect the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, but no such effort was employed to protect its own troops, who were sitting ducks in their unarmored vehicles and without adequate body armor as well. Abandoned ammunition dumps around Iraq were left unguarded by U.S. forces, and those armories supplied the insurgents with the bomb-making materials with which to set off their deadly improvised roadside explosives. (You go to war with the army you have, Rumsfeld said in the way of an explanation, a statement that verified that the war was launched precipitously without proper thought or contingency planning.)

The handwriting about Iraq has been on the wall for the past several years. The American people had concluded that the decision to go to war there was a ghastly mistake, and that we need to get our young men and women back home as soon as is practicable. The Iraqis agree. Poll after poll in Iraq indicates that U.S. occupying troops are regarded as a large part of the problem and should leave. The Iraq government agrees with Obama that most U.S. troops should be out of there within the next 16 months.

These realistic assessments, plus the constantly swelling costs of the war (total estimates are now at one trillion dollars and climbing!) have created a genuine problem for CheneyBush and their neo-con supporters, as well as for GOP candidate John McCain. They don't want to leave. They don't plan on leaving. Their whole strategy is based on control of Iraqi oil reserves and permanent military bases in Iraq from which to alter and police the Greater Middle East.

But the Iraqis want the U.S. out of their country, the American citizenry wants the U.S. troops out of that country. How to square that reality with the CheneyBush desire, as the world's remaining superpower, to control the geopolitics of that explosive region, one that houses much of the world's oil reserves? (The U.S. is the one superpower now; coming up fast on the outside are China and India -- and the comeback kid, Russia.)

The Republican/McCain solution to their Iraq dilemma seems to rest, as did the original decision to attack and occupy the country, on lies, deceptions, and obfuscations of the truth.


CheneyBush see the calendar as their friend. If they can delay hard-and-fast decisions another six months, and if McCain were to win and thus complete Bush's third term, the original neo-con plan for Iraq could be re-installed.

In the meantime, starting in the Fall, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will start to "redeploy" from Iraq, making it seem as if America under the Republicans is winding down the war, thus stealing Obama's thunder. The reality, of course, is that such a withdrawal is for show, to help Bush and Cheney complete their tenure without having to admit the war was lost on their watch and to help McCain hold onto Republican voters. The troops easily can be re-inserted into Iraq after the election.

McCain has been riding the surge horse for months now, using its limited successes as a demonstration of his good judgement. (He never mentions the evidence of his bad judgment: That he voted eagerly to send troops into Iraq in the first place.) He also doesn't mention that without the Sadrist militias going to ground and the Sunni Awakening against Al Qaida-in-Iraq (which began months before American surge forces entered the country), there would have been no major diminution of violence. Nor does he mention that the surge was designed as a breather to allow for political reconciliation to take place among the various Iraqi factions -- which still hasn't happened.

Iraq, for McCain, seems to be Vietnam all over again. His anger at the North Vietnamese guards (his term is "gooks") who mistreated him has never gone away, and all his Iraq talk about "not giving in...no surrender...we just need the will to win...courage in the face of hardship...stay the course" -- all these seem to be exhortations to himself, flowing from his painful years as a POW in 'Nam, rather than from political and military reality on the ground in Iraq.

Maybe that's why he seemed so unprepared last week when he was politically knee-capped by his handlers -- and before them, the Iraqi prime minister who publicly bought into Obama's timeframe for withdrawal -- all forcing him to make yet another contortionist flip-flop. In an instant, McCain went from Stay the Course for another 100 years if necessary, to OK, let's get out by 2010 (which of course long has been Obama's plan).

It's all B.S. political theater, and McCain seems very uncomfortable in the role of handled candidate, twisting to the tune of the daily party line. His body language is that of a reluctant, uncertain warrior, one forced by Obama's solid lead to lie, deceive, and even question the patriotism of his opponent -- this last desperate tack because McCain hasn't got much else to attack Obama with. He really wants to be the more moderate/maverick John McCain of olde, but he suspects he couldn't win the presidency with that persona, so he's willing to keep spouting the demented Republican party line.

Obama is doing a lot of shifting of positions as well, but seems much more skilled at making, or at least hinting at, believable transitions.


What we've got is the one-time "maverick" Republican, McCain, forced into becoming the standard-bearer for the HardRightists backing Cheney and Bush. In other words, McCain is tied to ultra-conservative policies that simply don't work, and the public knows that. McCain, who sold his political soul in 2006 to gain the presidency, is chomping at the bit that he willingly permitted his handlers to insert into his mouth. On the other side, there is a Democratic centrist/reformer who's moving toward the middle-right, while disguising the changes with grand, smooth rhetoric.

In other words, the electorate is presented with a choice between two highly interesting fellows who, in some ways, have become caricatures of traditional Washington politicians, one representing old-style Democrats and the other contemporary know-nothing Republicans. It's a sad spectacle.

Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans will vote for Obama, as they must to forestall a McCain victory that would be disastrous for American foreign and domestic affairs, including the direction of the Supreme Court. But it would be so much more interesting, honest, and good for the polity if both Obama and McCain would shed their forced personas and simply be who they are. If they even still know who they are at this difficult, uphill stage of the Tour de Ambition.

They could then talk openly and honestly about the issues Americans want and need to discuss, and our eventual choice at the polls would be based on something other than simple slogans, endless spin and a leap of faith. Yeah, that'll be the day.

Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances