The recent flap over the DNC's new ad which quotes John McCain talking about the length of the American commitment in Iraq, revolves around this exchange:
TIFFANY (questioner): President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.
MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. ... That'd be fine with me
If this were the whole of his comments, it would be tantamount to saying we will never leave Iraq in my lifetime or my son's lifetime. Or anyone else's son's lifetime.
Certain people have been saying that this rips the quote out of context. And it's true that the paragraph is a bit different than the ad makes it seem:
Maybe a hundred. How long—We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me.
More moderate, right? Here, McCain seems to hedge a bit and say that if the violence doesn't end (perhaps, return to prewar levels; if you believe the epidemiologists, it seems like we're still way above the prewar level. Here's the article about those studies) then he would support getting out. Here, one might wonder how much American and Iraqi death is too much. A cynic might ask if the violence would become too heavy a burden before or after November 2008.
Fortunately, we don't have to wonder, because again there is more context for McCain's remarks (on January 3, 2008, mind you). Here is the full exchange. It's from a New Yorker blog by Hendrik Hertzberg. The only words I changed from the original rough transcript are "Make it a hundred"; the tape clearly has McCain saying "Maybe a hundred."
Bear in mind that the questioner is an antiwar activist (I didn't know at the time). Whether he's an agitator looking to score points is... beside the point. McCain's opinion, it turns out, is pretty forthright.
Dave Tiffany... [a “full-time antiwar activist”] asked McCain “what you hope to accomplish in Iraq and how long it’s going to take.”
Here’s my rough transcript of what followed:
MCCAIN: The fact is, it’s a classic counterinsurgency. And you have to get areas under a secure environment, and that secure environment then allows the economic, political, and social process to move forward. In case you missed it, New Year’s Eve, people were out in the streets in Baghdad by the thousands for the first time in years. That’s because we provided them with a safe and secure environment. Is it totally safe? No. I talked earlier about the suicide bombs and the continued threats. But then what happens is American troops withdraw to bases. And we reach an arrangement like they have with South Korea and Japan. We still have troops in Bosnia. The fact is, it’s American casualties that the American people care about. Those casualties are on the way down, rather dramatically. You’ve got to consider the option. If we had withdrawn six months ago, I can look you in the eye and tell you that Al Qaeda would have said, We beat the United States of America. If we’d gone along with Harry Reid and said the war is lost to Al Qaeda, then we would be fighting that battle all over the Middle East. I’m convinced of that and so is General Petraeus.... I can tell you that it’s going to be long and hard and tough. I can tell you that the option of defeat is incredible and horrendous. And I can look you in the eye and tell you that this strategy is succeeding. And what we care about is not American presence. We care about American casualties. And those casualties will be dramatically and continue to be reduced.
TIFFANY: I do not believe that one more soldier being killed every day is success. There were three U.S. soldiers killed today. I want to know, How long are we going to be there?
MCCAIN: How long do you want us to be in South Korea? How long do you want us to be in Bosnia?
TIFFANY: There's no fighting going on in South Korea. There's no fighting in Bosnia. Let's come back to Iraq.
MCCAIN: I can look you in the eye and tell you that those casualties tragically continue… But they are much less, and they are dramatically reduced and we will eventually eliminate them. And again, the option of setting a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender. And we will then have many more casualties and many more American sacrifices if we withdraw with setting a date for surrender. Now you and I have an open and honest disagreement. But I can tell you that six months ago people like you, who believe like you do, said the surge would never succeed. It is succeeding. And I've been there and I've seen it with my very own eyes. Do you want to follow up?
TIFFANY: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.
MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. How long—We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training and recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.
TIFFANY: By the way, I hope you kick Romney’s butt. That man cannot lie straight in bed.
MCCAIN: I knew there was a reason I called on you.
TIFFANY: What if U.S. soldiers are being killed at the same rate, one per day, four years from now?
MCCAIN: I can't tell you what the ratio is. But I can tell you, I understand American public opinion, sir. I understand American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continue to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.
TIFFANY: I hear an open-ended commitment, then.
MCCAIN: I have an open-ended commitment in Asia. I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea. I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia. I have an open-ended commitment in in Europe…
The rest was drowned out by applause. McCain said, “This kind of dialogue has to take place in America today, and I thank you.”
To me, it's fairly clear that McCain doesn't have an exit strategy for Iraq. He has a permanent presence strategy for Iraq. He can contemplate being there in the year 2108, long after he's dead (and long after the next American casualty will be dead). What he can't contemplate is a future where American military force continues to fail in the face of a completely untenable political situation in Iraq.
Don't you get it? We have already had eight long, long years of a President who refuses to contemplate the consequences of failure, who is not living and dying in the reality that the rest of us recognize. The idea that we will have to go through another four years of this exhausts me, it makes my heart heavy.
Finally, here's Josh Marshall, with a very watchable dissection of the flap, with further McCain statements reaffirming his long-term commitment to the occupation of Iraq.