My question for John McCain

Republican presidential candidate John McCain visits the Twin Cities today, taking part in an invitation-only Town Hall meeting in St. Paul at the Landmark Center and attending a private fundraiser at the Hilton in Minneapolis.
REUTERS/Richard Carson
Republican presidential candidate John McCain visits the Twin Cities today, taking part in an invitation-only Town Hall meeting in St. Paul at the Landmark Center and attending a private fundraiser at the Hilton in Minneapolis.

Senator McCain. Welcome to Minnesota. Thank you for your service. My question is about the occupation of Iraq.

I agree that some Democrats have tried to have a little too much fun with your “100 years in Iraq” quote a while back. I take you at your word that you didn’t mean 100 more years resembling the last five — 100 years of steady U.S. casualties. In explaining what you really meant, you have said that it would be fine with you if U.S. troops had a long-term presence in Iraq, like the troops have had in Germany, Japan and Korea.

Many Americans may think that sounds fine. I’m not so sure. No other country has huge military installations around the world. It’s not only expensive, but it smacks of imperialism. Ask yourself how the U.S. — specifically the McCain administration — would view it if another powerful country — let’s say China for the sake of illustration — toppled the government of our neighbors — let’s say Mexico, and said that one of its goals was to leave behind a Mexican government that would be an ally of China. Let’s say China did install a Mexican government friendly to China and then reached a deal with its puppet government for a permanent military base close to our borders in order to protect what China declared to be its “vital interests” in the Americas. And then let’s say China announced that it would be fine if the bases were there for 100 years. My hunch is, the McCain administration wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t tolerate it, would view it as a threat and an act of aggression against the United States and a statement of China’s intent to dominate our hemisphere. Please correct me if I’m wrong about that.

Of course, the USA is not just any country. We are the world’s only superpower. How we use that position is essential to how the rest of the world views us as we try to repair some of the damage that President Bush — and the Iraq misadventure — have done to the our image in the world.

(I know you don’t think it is has been a misadventure. That is a deep, serious difference I have with you, and I will gladly ask you about that another day. But for the sake of efficiency, let’s confine ourselves to where we go from here in Iraq and especially the idea of 100-year bases.)

I know I’m making more assertions than posing questions here, but the question is: If, as you hope, U.S. troops will be in Iraq for 100 years, what will that do to the perception that the U.S. seeks to dominate Middle East? Given the widespread dislike in Iraq and in the Arab world for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, what would the 100-year bases do to the standing — among its own people and among its neighbors — of an Iraqi government that would reach such a long-term basing deal? Are you concerned about that?

Forgive me for running on, but there’s a second aspect of your “100 years” remark and your subsequent explanations of it that I would like to ask you about.

Your reference to the long-term U.S. troop presence in Germany, Japan and Korea is designed to illustrate that U.S. troops can be present in foreign bases without facing daily combat or casualties. My question is: How soon and at what cost in blood and treasure do you believe that the situation in Iraq — specifically the situation regarding the safety and normalcy of U.S. troops in Iraq — will resemble the situations in Germany, Japan and Korea?

It’s wonderful that the level of violence in Iraq has fallen over recent months. But more than 200 U.S. troops, and a much larger number of Iraqis, have been killed in the less than half-year of 2008 so far.

I hope, as you do, that the number continues to drop and soon gets close to zero. I assume we agree that the reasons for the decline in violence are several and complex and, as Gen. Petraeus said, “fragile” and “reversible.” Do you agree, “fragile” and “reversible?”

I suspect we may disagree, but I believe that there is no likely benefit to ordinary Americans of the invasion and occupation of Iraq that will outweigh the costs already incurred.

Those costs are already incurred and we can’t get them back. But decisions about war, including the future policy in Iraq, cannot and should not be shielded from the logic of cost/benefit analysis.

Your stay-until-victory policy (we’ll leave for another day the question of how, precisely, to describe and define “victory”), will impose more costs, new costs, in blood and treasure — costs that have implications for America’s ability to deal with military situations elsewhere, and costs that divert U.S. resources from other priorities, including domestic priorities and including reducing the shameful debt burden that we are every day imposing on our children (about which you say you care a good deal).

So my question to you is what might those additional costs be, in lives lost and lives shattered and dollars extracted from U.S. taxpayers and damage to the U.S. reputation in the world, before the situation of the U.S. military in Iraq resembles the situation in Germany?

Do you agree with me that there is no guarantee whatsoever that the situation of U.S. troops in Iraq — particularly their safety — will resemble the situation of U.S. troops in Germany within a year, or five years, or 10?

You can, of course, easily reply that there are never any guarantees in war except that it will be bloody and awful. I agree. It’s one reason we should not get into unnecessary wars. But seriously, given the entire regional and historical context in which Iraq sits, what is your level of confidence — and how can you convince skeptical listeners to share your confidence — that the situation of U.S. troops in Iraq will resemble the situation in Germany within 20 years? Or, I  don’t know, why not make it 100?

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 06/23/2008 - 02:38 pm.

    Perhaps you’d like to pursue our differences on your radio show?

    Have your people call our people!

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/19/2008 - 07:18 pm.

    A thoughtful blog, as usual. It does, however, bring a few questioning thoughts to mind:

    “let’s say China for the sake of illustration — toppled the government of our neighbors”

    >Mexico has oil, too, that’s true. But it seems to me the only potential superpower we want to have bases near in the case of Iraq is Iran. And I don’t hear them opposing our stabilizing their erstwhile enemy — just trying to use our nearness to poke at us.

    “If, as you hope, U.S. troops will be in Iraq for 100 years”

    >I don’t recall his saying he “hoped” for that. I may be in error. If he didn’t, that statement is not up to the usual EB standards.

    “Do you agree, “fragile” and “reversible?”
    I suspect we may disagree”

    >Funny, I thought that was the reason McCain wanted us to stay: until we have a stable government able to defend itself and maintain order. In which case, why suspect he would disagree?

    “cost in blood and treasure”

    >That phrase has been used often of late, but it leaves me wondering how much of the decried treasure would go away if we packed up from Iraq tomorrow? Do we intend (as we did after WW II) to discharge all those vets and send them home? Will we stop making war materials as we did then? Or will we maintain our armed forces at present strength and replace them when their tours are up? Will we send them to Afghanistan to fight there? If the latter, which I believe to be more realistic, then the “blood and treasure” argument seems a bit ingenuous, as it would appear that neither blood nor treasure would be affected by withdrawal. And even if they did not move to another theater, the fixed costs of our military machine would persist.

    Or perhaps advocates of withdrawal would intend to withdraw from other battle fronts as well, and fight defensive battles here at home. Even then, however, I suspect “blood and treasure” would be reasonably unaffected, unless plans are to disarm ourselves.

    If disarming is the goal, it seems to me those of that view would be a distinct minority in our threatening world.

    I’m not in favor of going out to find a “nice little war” to keep our troops sharp. But I think there are persuasive reasons to keep Iraq and other oil countries out of the hands of those who hate us, to the extent that we can.

  3. Submitted by Eric Black on 06/19/2008 - 08:45 pm.

    Thanks Alan and Craig. YOu both make good points. McCain’s $50K a head fund-raiser is technically legal, but a blatant circumvention of the intent of campaign finance laws. But I wonder if it’s fair to ask him to disam unilaterally? I trust you will be equally upset when Sen. Obama does the same thing.

    Like Craig Westover, I believe that the Constitution gave Congress the sole power to declare war. Yet we have had mostly undeclared wars for one hundred years. As a practical matter, the president is the decider (and I agree with Craig that this is substantially because Congress doesn’t use the power the it constitutionally has. In the Iraq case, the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force may be an adequate replacement for a declaration of war. But, while Pres. Bush asked for and worked that resolution, I don’t believe he ever acknowledged (and in this matter, he was consistent with most recent presidents who started undeclared wars) that he needed it.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/19/2008 - 12:46 pm.

    Excellent questions for Sen. McCain! There is an other question I would like to see him answer too. Given that he was a co-author of legislation to curb campaign spending abuse, how he justify his $50,000 fundraisers? Maybe he slithers in just barely over the line as legal, but he is certainly nowhere near the spirit of the law.

  5. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 06/20/2008 - 11:20 am.


    I have a few questions in response – partly assuming McCain’s voice, partly in my own. It’s way too long for a comment section, so I’ll submit the link for your approval:

  6. Submitted by Craig Westover on 06/19/2008 - 01:23 pm.

    My question for Eric Black:

    Good points all, Eric, but why are you asking your question of John McCain? (Yes, mine is as loaded a question as yours are.)

    I am assuming that you are asking McCain about occupation issues because he is constitutionally the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Constitutionally, however, the question of occupation of Iraq is more appropriately asked of the 16 people running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Under the U.S. Constitution, it is Congress that declares war, Congress that funds the war, and Congress that has the ultimate power (of the purse) to control questions of occupation of a foreign country. Certainly, the President has the power to repel sudden attacks, but any prolonged engagement constitutionally requires a declaration of Congress, and its ongoing support.

    Of course, that assumes that Congress wants that authority, but a series a resolutions delegating war-making power to the President (going back to the Viet Nam War) indicate past Congresses have not. So, what kind of Congress are we going to elect in November?

    That is why my question to you, Eric: Shouldn’t you be addressing your concerns to the people who will have the constitutional authority to set limits on the President’s war-making capability rather than legitimizing the imperial presidency by asking presidential candidate McCain a question that constitutionally is not his to answer?

  7. Submitted by Eric Black on 06/20/2008 - 09:14 am.

    Hello John, always good to hear from you. I didn’t respond to your comment in my previous because I hadn’t seen it yet.
    When the current bill that just passed the House goes through, it will bring to about $650 billion the official cost of the war so far. This is not the cost of maintaining the military and paying the soldiers but the additional cost necessitated by the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. when you take into account long-range future costs, for example caring for the wounded, the total cost will be well over $1 trillion.
    You seem to have some sympathy for the idea that because we buy a lot of foreign oil, we have some elevated police power over the areas where the oil is buried. I do not.
    I believe you’re right that McCain never said he “hoped” U.S. troops would be in Iraq for 100 years. He said it would be “fine with me.”

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/20/2008 - 08:08 am.

    And Mr. Obama goes unquestioned.

  9. Submitted by Craig Westover on 06/20/2008 - 09:51 am.

    Eric –

    Interesting choice of verbs — “the Constitution GAVE Congress the sole power to declare war.” I believe the Constitution (still) GIVES Congress the sole power to declare war, or did I miss the demise of the Constitution and the rule of law somewhere between campaign finance reform and foreclosure relief?

    There is no “adequate replacement for a declaration of war.” If the authorization of force were adequate, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be saying things like Congress gave the president that authority “as an option.” A Declaration of War requires a president to exercise Commander in Chief power. It affirms the will of the people. It makes a war “America’s War,” not “Bush’s War.”

    On an issue where the Democrats are right – the dangers of an imperial presidency – they have shown an incredible lack of integrity and courage in confronting the Bush administration where it is politically dangerous to do so. Perhaps, it is because it is not the imperial power they resent, but simply the fact that they don’t control it. President Clinton had no problem with unilaterial strikes on aspirn factories. Does anyone really believe Barack Obama, who can move the masses from the bully pulpit, is going to return presidential power to Congress?

    “As a practical matter,” defaulting to the view of the president as decider (rather than the the executor of the law defined in the Constitution) you become part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Bush administration is only symptomatic of a larger problem. George Bush is not the problem – the imperial presidency is.

    Instead of sending our congressional delegation to Washington to garner funds for bike trails and light rail lines, maybe we should be quizzing them on their constitutional job descriptions.

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/20/2008 - 10:01 am.

    I have been searching (unsuccessfully) high and low — as an old cost accountant sensitive to fixed vs variable costs — for some breakout of those claimed costs for over three years. If you have access to that information I would appreciate reference to a source. I am sure extra costs (combat pay, reserves called up, expended materiel) are there, but would like to know if the claimed “official” costs are indeed extra costs, or a bundle of fixed and extra costs. And my suspicious mind says “If they won’t break it out, it’s combined.”

    As for police powers, sympathetic or not, I don’t believe the US will — or should — abandon the practice of all great powers (including the US over the past 2+ centuries) of using their military power to reinforce their national interests. We may simply have to disagree on that.

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/22/2008 - 04:10 pm.

    Thanks for the reference.

    I did get one fact from it: if a soldier is killed the death benefit is $500,000.00. So now I can put one fact line in my research: approximately 2 billion dollars so far for death benefits.

    Still looking for the rest, though.

  12. Submitted by Eric Black on 06/22/2008 - 12:54 pm.

    To John I: I’m not a war costs expert. Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz has written a book length inquiry estimating the total cost at $2-$3 trillion. Here’s an op-ed by Stiglitz summarizing the case:

    Craig W: You will have a hard time piicking a fight with me on this because we agree, Congress has the sole Constitutional power to declare war (with the exception of short-term war-like measures necessary to repel sudden attacks on the U.S. I didn’t give a lot of thought to my use of past tense (Constitution “gave,” and of course this grant did occur in the past. I gather we agree that it should still be operative, but clearly is not. I agree with you that Congress could and should do more, do anything, to reassert this power, and I join you in condemning those who fail to do so.
    Perhaps we differ slightly on the question of whether Congress can authorize the presxident to use force without passing something called a declaration of war, but I don’t think that’s the essence of the question.
    Mitch Berg: I read your post and appreciate, as usual, your ability to disagree civilly and substantively. I disagree with most of what you wrote but can’t reply to all of it here. Perhaps you’d like to pursue our differences on your radio show?

  13. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/23/2008 - 12:48 pm.

    I tested Barnes & Noble ($16.00+shipping) and ($11.50+shipping) for the Three Billion Dollar War reference, and decided to wait till it gets down to five bucks…

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