McCain�s spin on the �surge�
By Jason Leopold
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Aug 1, 2008, 00:25
Over the past several weeks, John McCain and his backers
have touted his early endorsement of the Iraq War �surge� as evidence of his
political courage, but it could be equally viewed as an act of political
desperation, to forestall total calamity in Iraq and to avert disaster for
broader neoconservative objectives in the Middle East.
McCain�s endorsement of the �surge� in January 2007 also
represented a repudiation of his previous support for Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld�s concept of using a light force of mobile U.S. troops, backed by
technology and air power, to win the war.
McCain now presents himself as a persistent and tough critic
of Rumsfeld�s war plan, but that doesn�t square with his earlier statements
backing the defense secretary�s approach.
�I don�t think you�re going to have to see the scale of
numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that
we had back in 1991,� McCain told Larry King in a pre-invasion interview on
Dec. 9, 2002, that compared Rumfeld�s plan for a relatively light invasion army
to the overwhelming force deployed in the first Persian Gulf War.
On March 5, 2003, just two weeks before the Iraq invasion,
McCain told the Hartford Courant that he had �no qualms about our strategic
plans,� noting that a similar approach had been �very successful in
Part of McCain�s overconfidence seemed to derive from his
belief that U.S. forces would encounter little resistance. As the invasion
began, McCain told NBC�s �Today� show that Iraqis �will greet us as
His enthusiasm for Rumsfeld�s war plan was still strong more
than a year later. �I believe [Rumsfeld] has done a good job in the early
stages of the war,� McCain told Fox News�s �The Big Story� on May 4, 2004.
McCain continued to defend the Bush administration�s Iraq
policies well into 2006, until public support for the war sank and Democratic
prospects for winning control of Congress soared.
In the latter half of 2006, neoconservatives were faced with
major reversals in the Middle East, too. Sectarian violence was spiraling out
of control in Iraq, and the Israelis failed to rout Hezbollah fighters in
If the neocon vision of a powerful and permanent U.S.
military presence in the Muslim world were to survive, aggressive action -- and
more American troops -- were needed. That�s when neoconservative strategist
Frederick Kagan took the lead in shaping a plan to send thousands of additional
U.S. troops to Iraq.
In doing that, he built on a proposal that he drafted in
January 2005, along with his brother, Robert Kagan, and William Kristol, a
founder of the neocon Project for the New American Century and editor of Rupert
Murdoch�s Weekly Standard magazine.
That plan urged the U.S. government to deploy an additional
25,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, not so much to quell the violence inside Iraq, but
to intimidate Iraq�s neighbors in the Middle East.
At the time, the Bush administration stuck with Rumsfeld�s
strategy of keeping the U.S. military �footprint� in Iraq relatively small.
However, as U.S. casualties in Iraq continued to mount and sectarian violence
spread, President George W. Bush grew impatient with Rumsfeld�s strategy.
The policy dispute reached a crisis point in early November
2006 as it became clear the Democrats were headed toward major gains in
Congress and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by Bush family lawyer James
Baker, was preparing recommendations for a troop drawdown.
On Nov. 6, 2006, a day before the elections, Rumsfeld sent
Bush a memo suggesting a �major adjustment� in Iraq War policy that would
include �an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases� from 55 to five by July 2007
with remaining U.S. forces only committed to Iraqi areas that request them.
�Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully,
U.S. forces would leave their province,� Rumsfeld wrote.
Then, proposing an option similar to a plan enunciated by
Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld suggested that the commanders �withdraw
U.S. forces from vulnerable positions � cities, patrolling, etc. -- and move
U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq
and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.�
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bush�s
lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the
administration should �recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how
we talk about them) -- go minimalist.� [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]
Though many Americans viewed Rumsfeld as the personification
of Bush�s �tough-guy� strategy in the Middle East, the defense secretary�s downfall
may have been caused by his going wobbly on the war.
Two days later, on Nov. 8, after Democrats had won
majorities in both the House and Senate, Rumsfeld was out at the Pentagon and
former CIA Director Robert Gates was in.
Initially, official Washington interpreted the switch as a
sign the �realists� who advocated disengagement from Iraq had won out and the
neocons had lost. But the reality was the opposite: Gates would be the fresh
face who would buy time for an escalation of U.S. troops, not manage a
Bush signaled this point during a Nov. 30, 2006, trip to
Amman, Jordan, where he mocked the drawdown recommendations from the Iraq Study
Group. The president said U.S. forces would �stay in Iraq to get the job done,�
adding �this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it
whatsoever.� [For details, see Consortiumnews.com�s �Gates Hearing Has New
In early December 2006, Frederick Kagan and his
troop-escalation plan resurfaced with a column in The Weekly Standard, �We Can
Put More Forces in Iraq.�
Vice President Dick Cheney and senior members of Bush�s
Cabinet soon entered into a dialogue with Kagan to draft a new plan for dealing
with the Iraq conflict and to counter the political momentum behind the Iraq
Study Group�s recommendations for a gradual withdrawal.
When the Iraq Study Group issued its formal report on Dec.
6, 2006, Bush gave it a cool reception. Then, during a classified briefing at
the Pentagon, Bush reportedly made clear to the brass that he had no interest
in finding a way out of Iraq.
Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, described
Bush�s message as: �What I want to hear from you is how we�re going to win, not
how we�re going to leave.�
Working with retired Gen. Jack Keane, Kagan quickly hammered
together a report, entitled �Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,�
which was issued by the American Enterprise Institute where Kagan worked.
Some key points of the AEI white paper were:
- Change the focus from training Iraqi soldiers to
securing the Iraqi population and containing the rising violence.
- Send seven more Army brigades and Marine
regiments into Iraq, and especially into Baghdad, to support this security
Clear critical Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia
neighborhoods in Baghdad and leave U.S. forces and Iraqi troops behind to
- After security is established, use
reconstruction aid to improve daily life and strengthen Iraqi local government.
McCain climbs aboard
As this �surge� strategy began to take shape, John McCain
and his neoconservative Senate ally, Joseph Lieberman, clambered onboard. They
endorsed Kagan�s plan during an appearance at AEI on Jan. 5, 2007.
�I�d like to especially commend General Keane and Fred Kagan
for the outstanding work they�ve done, not only on this issue but on
transformation of the military and many other national security issues,� McCain
said, as antiwar protesters marched outside of AEI�s Washington offices.
�There are two keys to any surge of U.S. troops,� McCain
said. �To be of value the surge must be substantial and it must be sustained . .
. We will need a large number of troops.
�During our recent trip [to Iraq] commanders on the ground
spoke of a surge of three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and at least
an additional brigade in Anbar province. I believe these numbers are the
minimum that�s required -- a minimum.�
On Jan. 10, 2007, Bush formally announced his approval of
the �surge� strategy, committing more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to
As part of the new plan, Bush ousted the commanders on the
ground, Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, who were associated with
Rumsfeld�s �small-footprint� approach. Bush installed a more gung-ho commander
in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Ultimately about 30,000 additional U.S. troops were
dispatched to Iraq -- and the levels of violence did decline, although various
analysts have different interpretations for the reasons.
Supporters of Bush and McCain -- along with much of the U.S.
news media -- simply assert that the �surge� was a success.
But other analysts point to developments that preceded the
�surge,� such as the brutal ethnic cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shiite
neighborhoods which left fewer targets for deaths squads; Sunni tribal
rejection of al-Qaeda extremists, the so-called Anbar Awakening; cease-fires
declared by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and the cumulative
war-weariness among Iraqis after years of horrific bloodshed.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress, issued a mixed progress report on the �surge.�
The GAO found that violence in Iraq had fallen over the past
year, but that other �surge� goals had not been met. The GAO said training of
Iraqi security forces still lags, Sunni insurgents have not been defeated,
cease-fires with Shiite militias are fragile, and political reconciliation has
not been achieved.
Nevertheless, in recent weeks, virtually every TV interview
with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has started with a barrage
of questions demanding that he admit he was wrong to oppose the �surge� in
Meanwhile, Frederick Kagan has written numerous columns over
the past several months praising McCain for backing the �surge.� And brother,
Robert Kagan, is an �unofficial� foreign policy adviser to McCain�s campaign.
The end of the �surge� will soon see U.S. troop levels
recede to about 130,000, where they were when the �surge� began.
A final evaluation of the �surge� may not be possible for
several more months, after the troop levels are back down -- and when it
becomes clear whether any lasting improvement was achieved.
Leopold is the author of �News Junkie,� a memoir. Visit
for a preview. His new website is The
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