11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conventional Wisdom Surging

Two highly suspect yet seemingly unkillable narratives continue to swirl through the presidential election largely unchallenged: The supposedly undeniable success of "The Surge" in Iraq as touted by Senator John McCain, and the related matter of McCain's reputation as a proven military leader who, in his running mate Sarah Palin's words, "knows how to win a war."

In both cases, this conventional wisdom, echoed in the press and on the campaign trail, are contradicted by actual evidence -- readily available but almost never discussed. We should all be asking how that can be.

So let's compare image with reality, beginning with the surge. The surge in troops that brought an extra 20,000 soldiers to Iraq last year did indeed coincide with a decrease of violence there. But how do we know there is a real cause and effect relationship? One key factor is almost always omitted in discussions of the surge's presumed effects: At the same time the violence declined, the U.S. started paying $30 million in bribes every month to the terrorists.

We are, in short, paying the bad guys not to kill us, as New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins' recently explained to a shocked audience during a stop in Los Angeles to discuss his new book, The Forever War.

That's right, our tax dollars have been used to give $300 monthly bribes -- a fortune in Iraq -- to each of more than 100,000 insurgents and militiamen. That's the other surge: a surge in the terrorists' bank accounts. For obvious reasons, McCain and Palin never mention this costly ransom written into the fine print of the surge, although its hard to fathom why Barrack Obama isn't shouting about it every day of the week.

Then there is the matter of McCain's military leadership qualities. I earlier documented how his claimed support for the troops was not born out by his actual votes in the Senate, where he has consistently failed to back legislation and funding for servicemen that veterans groups consider vital, most recently Senator Jim Webb's much-needed revamping of the GI Bill.

Now, given the claim by Palin during the vice presidential debate that McCain knows how to win wars, why isn't the media demanding some evidence to support this crucial claim? What war has he won? It was McCain, after all, who predicted the Iraq war would be over in a matter of months, that American troops would be greeted as liberators, and that he was "right" about the surge (in troops, that is, not bribes).

What does McCain's military career tell us in support of this claim? It begins as George W. Bush's career began at Yale University -- as a silver-spoon legacy admission, thanks to the fact that McCain's father and grandfather were highly respected admirals. John McCain's career, however, was undistinguished at best, marred by three peacetime aircraft crashes that suggest he was either a very unlucky pilot, or a very ungifted one: He lost one plane in training, one by colliding with power lines during a peacetime deployment to Spain, and one while flying to an Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. McCain went on to fly 23 missions over Vietnam, about twenty hours of combat, before his A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber was shot down and he was captured.

He served with honor and courage in the years that followed while facing detention and torture as a prisoner of war - the defining time of his military career if not his entire life. But with all due respect: Being shot down and captured by an inferior enemy force is not evidence that McCain knows how to win wars or how to lead the entire U.S. military. Yet his status as POW hero seems to be the main basis for this conventional wisdom both he and Palin constantly promote.

The major media organizations have been busily fact-checking all sorts of minutiae during the campaign (and, embarrassingly for a few of them, mocking Joe Biden for correctly using the word, "Bosniak" during his debate with Palin), yet these two central claims of the McCain candidacy, about his skills as a war leader and the effects of the surge -- matters on which he has staked his bid for president -- have gone unchallenged until now. I'd like to know why.