Wednesday, April 02, 2008

More Maverick militarism

I've seen a couple of very worthwhile pieces this week on the bold Maverick's foreign policy ideas: McCain's Vietnam Obsession by Mark Benjamin Salon 04/01/08 and McCain's War Thing by Steve Clemons, Washington Note blog 03/31/08.

Clemons has recently confessed to being disappointed not to find more of that discriminating, maverick-type thinking he once perceived in the legendary Straight Talker. But I like the distinction he makes that he says runs across both conservative foreign policy types and liberal/progressive one, "that there are those like McCain who are committed to the militant export of American-style democracy and those who are motivated by other objectives that depend less on the Pentagon".

Now, like any brief summary of a tangled complex of issues, we could nit-pick that endlessly. But we shouldn't forget that there are "liberal hawks" like Obama's (former?) adviser Samantha Power who are anxious to have the US and others enforce a humanitarin vision by military power in various trouble spots in the world. We need to have, and I mean really, really need to have an "Iraq Syndrome" in the US that will hopefully remind most people for a long time to come that war is very risky and unpredictable. Good intentions alone aren't going to in themselves teach anyone Arabic or Urdu, or impart knowledge about the convolutions of ethnic hatreds in the Balkans or the Sudan, or grant magical insight into tribal fueds in Somalia or Pakistan.

Despite Clemons' wish to see a more hopeful side of McCain, ...

there's not much mistaking the harshness of this judgment:

If McCain actually believes what he is saying, it is mind-blowingly frustrating to imagine a president who would commit to a further collapse of the American military machine by adding more security obligations in the next term and not take stock and then mend and repair the miserable condition of America's national security portfolio.
I remember when I wrote articles for my college newspaper, one of the few things that I had edited out was a reference to "the American war machine". Okay, Clemons said "military machine" but still, I'm going to take it as a sign that "acceptable" language about such things is loosening up.

Benjamin's article explains how the supposed dovish tendencies that the Maverick showed in opposing St. Reagan's commitment of US troops to Lebanon, and in demanding that Bill Clinton cut-and-run as quickly as possible after the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia, are actually part of a rigidly hawkish view of foreign and military policy. (The distinction between foreign and military policy in the Maverick's worldview isn't really clear to me, but I'll return to that another time.)

It has to do with the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine. This was the theory to which conservatives and much of the officer corps adhered during the 1980s and 1990s, which Benjamin summarizes well.

What his article doesn't make clear is that the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine assumed that all wars after Vietnam would be conventional wars. It was a way to justify staying out of counterinsurgency (COIN) situations. It also relied heavily on the stab-in-the-back view of the US defeat in the Vietnam War. And Lord knows that's a healthy instinct in itself!

But it also in practice incorporated a heavy, even extreme, reliance of air power. And the Maverick himself seems to be as true a believer in the magic war-winning capabilities of air power as Rummy was, if not more so. Benjamin recalls the Maverick's prescription for the upcoming Gulf War when he said in October, 1990, "I believe that a scenario of 10,000 or so is not unreasonable or unbelievable, but I'll tell you this: We'd better not fight a tank-war battle on the ground. We'd better use what we've got the most of and the best of and that's our air power."

That gives us a strong hint of part of how McCain will try to fight his 100 Years War in Iraq, by increasing tonnages of bombs dropping on "terrorist hideouts" in crowded urban areas.

Benjamin also quotes the Maverick's campaign's "director of foreign policy", Randy Scheunemann, saying, "The right way to think about Vietnam is, think very carefully about getting in before you get in, about the goals and how do you plan to achieve those goals. If you get involved, prosecute it to victory."

The real stinker in that formulation is the v-word. Unfortunately, our Maverick like many an Republican war fan seems to be able to conceive Victory only in terms of the unconditional surrender of the enemy in any given conflict. But wars in which that is a realistic or desirable goals are almost as scarce as WMDs in Iraq were in 2003. The Maverick in his post-POW studies seemed to have concluded that seeking unconditional surrender would have been a desirable goal to seek in the Vietnam War.

At any rate, something like unconditional surrender - whatever that might look like in Iraq - seems to be the idea behind this formulation, "Speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign, Scheunemann said the Arizona senator has a very clear exit strategy for Iraq: 'victory with honor.' "

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