08/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Premature Surge Adulation

Think of the last time you burned your hand -- really burned it, to the point where you knew instantly it would blister. Or worse.

Now imagine John McCain pushing you to your kitchen sink, cranking the spigot, and urging you to run cold water over your painful burn. Feel that cool relief as the surge of water washes over your hand. The pain practically disappears.

McCain beams at you: "You, my friend, are all fixed up. I'm a medical visionary. I alone had the courage to run a surge of cold water over your hand when a lesser man would have insisted on a trip to the emergency room."

He unfurls a "Mission Accomplished" banner and turns off the water.

Six seconds pass. A throbbing pain mauls your hand. You quickly find some lesser man to drive you to the hospital.

Back in the real world, our country is in the throes of a dangerous delusion: namely, that we have gathered enough data to call the so-called troop "surge" in Iraq a success. Violence is down, McCain tells us. It's because of the surge, he tells us.

Why is anyone surprised by these partial, preliminary successes?

Any fair-minded reader of Thomas Ricks' fantastic book Fiasco would have been able to promise you that an innovator like General David Petraeus would make some things less bad in Iraq for as long as we gave him five extra brigades to work with. But Petraeus -- by the very nature and design of the surge -- is losing those extra troops. And "less bad" is not the same thing as "good." Bottom line: No sane American family would willingly swap houses and lives with a family in Baghdad.

Consider Wednesday's words from an Iraqi writing for the New York Times' "Baghdad Bureau" blog:

"The country has been destroyed. More than a hundred thousand people were killed, the infrastructure was obliterated and the country became an open battlefield for terrorists from everywhere to settle their scores with the Americans. We never heard of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia before, but now they are there. We never heard of car bombs or I.E.D.s, but they are still killing us every day. There is no horrible way of death that we haven't seen since 2003, and for what?

"After five years, Baghdad still has no reliable electricity, no clean water or any kind of services. Recently, sandstorms struck the city for five days and people had to lock themselves inside their houses, with the temperature at about 120 degrees F. and no electricity, not enough water and a big fuel crisis.

"Who can live in such conditions?"

Keep that bleak picture in mind the next time you find yourself agreeing with the McCain delusion: that the surge worked, that the sink water cured your blistering burn.

I could spend several paragraphs now justifying why I think it's premature to pass any judgment on whether the surge will go down in history as even a partial success. But instead I'll quote McCain adviser Max Boot, who went on public radio Tuesday and hurled words at Senator Obama which boomerang neatly back at McCain: "Nobody really knows what Iraq will look like six months from now, much less two years from now."

Knowing that and saying that didn't stop Boot from telling the same radio audience that McCain has been "vindicated in Iraq." Yes, we don't know what Iraq will look like in six months, but we do know that whatever lurks out there on the horizon will vindicate McCain. Well, nonsense.

Let me be clear. I hope -- and we all need to hope -- that the gains of the surge will be permanent, that on this one policy point McCain will be "vindicated," if that's the word for it.

But overall, there can be no vindication for McCain. No matter how often Max Boot and the rest of McCain's people point to the surge and tout their guy as some kind of visionary, they can't erase McCain's failure of judgment, conscience, and courage during the rush to war. He turned his back on the only surge that might have spared us this irredeemable calamity: a surge before the invasion.

McCain is a longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before the war, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki famously warned that committee that the Bush Administration planned to invade Iraq with vastly fewer troops than needed. General Shinseki got trashed by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of the military hobbyists running the Pentagon.

McCain, more than anyone in Washington, could have stood up for General Shinseki and changed history. As a Republican, a veteran, a war hero, an ex-POW, a longtime member of the Armed Services committee, and a supposed maverick, McCain had unique moral authority to step up and insist that we go to war with enough troops. But the maverick didn't step up. Given a choice between General Shinseki's professional judgment and Rumsfeld's amateur judgment, McCain picked the amateur. Rumsfeld's gone now, discredited. But somehow McCain is still here, re-packaged as a visionary, and possibly on his way to the White House. It's stupefying.

While McCain eventually became a Rumsfeld critic, he somehow saw fit to go on TV the year after the invasion and assert that the defense secretary was an "honorable man" who was doing "a fine job."

A key part of the myth McCain's peddling about the surge is that he was a lonely voice agitating for us to send more troops to Iraq. It wasn't all that lonely, though. Pre-surge, way back on September 12, 2006, comedian Jon Stewart marked what he rightly called "the fifth anniversary of the misappropriation of the events of September 11th" by making the case for something even more ambitious than the temporary surge backed by McCain. It was a put-up-or-shut-up challenge to President Bush.

"If you're going to tell us that the fate of civilization depends on what happens on the streets of Baghdad, maybe we should have sent more people to Baghdad. With guns," Stewart said during his Daily Show broadcast. "You know, like they say in Texas, you can't plow a field with a muskrat. Or in this case, 130,000 muskrats. Maybe we need to send, you know, more muskrats. Five-hundred thousand, let's say."

He concluded his challenge to the president this way: "What I'm saying is this. If this is a battle for civilization, make your case and gear it up. Let's World War II this thing. Alright? And if it's not, stop scaring the shit out of everybody every two years."

But we didn't "World War II this thing." Certainly not with the surge.

The underlying irony of the surge is that it was finite. McCain, Bush, Cheney, and other chest-beaters scold Senator Obama for advocating a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. They warn -- not illogically -- that a timeline amounts to a message to your enemies: Hunker down, mark your calendars, wait for us to leave, then come out fighting when we aren't there to stop you. But the surge sent precisely the same sort of message: You can fight us now while we temporarily have more troops or you can hunker down, mark your calendars, rest up, wait for our extra troops to leave, then fight us when we have fewer soldiers to challenge you.

McCain, meanwhile, has shown this week that he may not even understand the basic details of the surge or the most fundamental principles of the broad, innovative, flexible portfolio of tactics known as counterinsurgency. On Wednesday, fielding reporters' questions in the cheese aisle of a supermarket in Bethlehem, PA, McCain tried to dig his way out of these troubles. He lamented the ignorance of his critics and explained that "the surge" is a synonym for "counterinsurgency." This is breathtakingly incorrect. Since this man could be our next commander-in-chief, we are in the very sad position of needing to hope he was lying. But he sure looked like he meant every addled word that fell from his lips. Watch it. It's astonishing.

"I know how to win wars," McCain told an audience in Albuquerque earlier this month.

I wish we had reason to believe that.