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McCain and Petraeus Remain Gung Ho

McCain and Petraeus Remain Gung Ho

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

John McCain is no warmonger, he tells us. More than most, he knows the agony of war in a deeply personal way. Why, then, does he persist in portraying Iraq, Afghanistan and the "Global War on Terror" as primarily military problems? Does he truly believe America and its allies could win all three if only we keep a stout heart and properly apply our superior force?

American voters may well find out this week when General David Petraeus testifies before two senate panels on "progress in Iraq." As the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, McCain will stand front and center, supporting General Petraeus in selling a continuing American occupation. McCain's bid to become president rests heavily on how American voters come to view the occupation in November, and on the way they answer a number of largely unvoiced questions about how well McCain would defend the country against a host of widely misunderstood foreign threats.

For all his undoubted courage and long years of experience, has McCain learned to think beyond military definitions of progress, success, victory and defeat? Can he now see the world in larger, more realistic terms, as a long line of American war heroes from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower learned to do? In other words, does John McCain display the broader judgment a president needs to have?

We should ask the same questions of the two Democratic contenders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom will be among the senators grilling Petraeus. But McCain presents an extreme case of a military mindset Americans need to confront. A top gun Navy flier and the son and grandson of four-star admirals, McCain learned too well to think the way a warrior must think: Fight to win. Never give in. Never turn tail. Or, as he says of Iraq, "We're in it, now we must win it."

These are sentiments many of us can understand and even admire in certain situations. But what do they bring us in Iraq, where even the CIA says the ongoing war helps al-Qaeda and their allies recruit increasing numbers of militants and sympathizers throughout the Islamic world?

McCain warns withdrawing our military forces would only embolden al-Qaeda. It would, but their hubris would be short-lived. Leave it to the Sunni tribesmen General Petraeus now pays to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. Months before America escalated its troop levels, these Sunnis had turned against the mostly foreign jihadis. Days after American troops leave, the tribesmen would find it relatively easy to isolate and destroy these other unwelcome guests.

McCain worries that withdrawing our military forces would weaken America's ability to get other countries to do what Washington wants. On this, he is half-right, depending on exactly what Washington wants. Military bases for American troops and favorable oil contracts for American and allied corporations would become more difficult to impose. But if Washington could ever learn to reduce its reliance on the global projection of military force, most Americans would find the world a far more welcoming place. Just look at all the business American firms now do in Vietnam and China.

Vietnam is key to McCain's thinking. Much to his credit, he has made his personal peace with the Vietnamese. But, in his military mind, he still thinks America could have and should have won our ill-advised adventure in Southeast Asia. How much further would he have escalated that incredibly bloody war had he been president? Who knows? But, given the widespread opposition to the war among Americans at the time, he would have had to destroy any pretense of constitutional rights on the home front. And for what? As most scholars now agree, no conceivable escalation would have defeated Vietnam's long-standing fight for independence from foreign rule, whether against the Chinese, the French or us.

As we will hear this week, General Petraeus understands the importance of political and ideological forces far better than does McCain. Petraeus has even publicly scolded Iraqi politicians for not working harder to reconcile their differences. Still, he will not give up the counterproductive military fight. Like McCain, the Princeton-educated general stands steadfast in his refusal to see the obvious. No matter how cleverly we apply our overwhelming force, foreign occupation breeds its own opposition in Iraq just as it did in Vietnam.

This is a lesson the gung-ho military mind cannot seem to grasp, which is why Americans would do well to look elsewhere for a president.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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