McCain, Iraq, and Bush's Third Term

The trap could not have been more tightly woven. On Tuesday, March 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the resignation of Admiral William Fallon, the head of Central Command and the top-ranking military officer in the Middle East.

Fallon was the superior of General David Petraeus. Today, with Fallon gone and Petraeus unresisted, we got the news we knew was coming. The numbers of American troops in Iraq will be maintained at their present level through the election year of 2008.

This announcement will hardly cause a ripple in the protocols of docile support which the mainstream media have followed ever since March 2007: first, take the war off the front page and (so far as possible) out of the range of coverage; then repeat from a great distance the words "The surge is working."

It was commonly assumed (by those who think about such things) that the forced resignation of Admiral Fallon signaled the desire of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush to open a path to bombing Iran. Fallon had always been skeptical about starting another war in the region; he said aloud that a war against Iran "won't happen on my watch"; unlike Cheney and Bush, he trusted the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran more than the latest war blueprints from the American Enterprise Institute. While Fallon was head of CentCom, he worked to muffle the explosive effects of the provocations to Iran that emanated from the Office of the Vice President and its point-men at the Pentagon and in the Senate (Joe Lieberman). Thus, when, in early January, a fractious encounter between Iranian speedboats and coalition warships in the Strait of Hormuz threatened to ignite a war, Fallon, quietly and behind the scenes, talked the fury down. He made sure that even the cable networks came to understand that American ships had never been in immediate danger. He allowed his staff to say this sort of thing happened often in the Gulf.

Yet Iran was not the short-term object when Fallon was asked to resign. A few days earlier, he had publicly declared his view that American troops should start their withdrawal from Iraq. General Petraeus's design for an indefinite prolongation of the surge was subject to Fallon's approval; and Fallon let it be known that he would not approve. Rather, there would be a short pause, and then the first steps of the drawing-down. It was this that got him fired.

The pieces hardly need to be put together. Petraeus told George W. Bush he could not pursue his strategy if Fallon vetoed it. Either Fallon must go, or the surge must dwindle from the de facto permanent policy it now appears to be, and become instead the temporary measure it was originally sold as. President Bush took the point and Fallon was out.

Of course, Iran may be the larger game in view. But the short-term purpose, as always with Cheney and Bush, is also and emphatically political. So long as the surge hangs on and more Americans die who must not have died in vain, the Bush occupation strategy remains the unpleasant but inevitable policy: the thing we have to do. Unless Petraeus is challenged or stopped, the futility of the surge will never be debated. For the mainstream media have been read into the program. Their eyes are shut, their ears are closed, and the words they speak continually are "The surge is working."

Was there also a hidden value for Bush and his chosen successor, John McCain, in the sacking of Fallon to give a free pass to Petraeus? This transition which is no transition puts all the burden of continuing or stopping the war on the next president. But that presents no difficulties to McCain; he wants the war to go on. If, on the other hand, a Democrat is elected who wants to stop the war, he will have to fight uphill against an incantation that says, "But the surge was working!--You!--It was you who lost Iraq!"

This strategy was used with profit in Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s, to help overthrow the Weimar Republic. It was called the "Dolchstoss Theory" (stab in the back). Nothing about the moral history of Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and the neoconservatives who commandeered this war from the start can make us doubt that they would promulgate such a theory with relish.

For President Bush, his walking away from (by handing on) the wreck he made of an entire country will only be the last such act in a career of destruction and evaded responsibilities. Remorse and chagrin are beyond him. Yet he knows what it looks like to others; and Petraeus and the surge are the only facade behind which he can retreat into a life of dignified partying and written talks about the religious meaning of democracy.

For the American people, a third term of Bush's war in Iraq presents a graver prospect. Few can take as lightly as the younger Bush the putting to flight of four million refugees, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the degradation of the American army, and the protraction of enormous risks to our soldiers in a foreign occupation whose purpose was always obscure.

The opposition really have no more choice than John McCain. They cannot do half so well as McCain the one thing he can be relied on to do: inherit and maintain the Bush war policy in 2009, and make sure the Iraq war (and perhaps new wars) are still going in 2013. If they want to have a chance, and if they mean to fight off the Dolchstoss explanation which is already eddying in the lower reaches of talk radio and the chambers of the AEI, the opposition must educate the American public about Iraq. Tell how the war began, what the lies were that got us in, the way the strategy miscarried at every stage, and the reasons why the "blunders" of the war are not confined to the scapegoats Bremer and Rumsfeld but permeate a policy that assumed it was right for American soldiers to settle in Iraq. The permanent bases must be brought to the light of public discussion. What are they for? What good, and what harm, can be expected from our evident construction of an American garrison for operations in West Asia?

It has long been clear that the American occupation of Iraq has warped our relations with much of the world. It is long past time that we discussed openly what interests were felt to outweigh the apparent self-interest of the United States.