Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Other McCain Doctrine

Here’s my biggest problem with Matt Bai’s longwinded window on the mad cow mind of presidential wannabe John W. McCain: it’s complete and utter hogwash.

Desperately seeking an angle by which to sell editors and America alike on yet another feature article on the faux-maverick of the moment, Bai rolls out this theory at the beginning of his Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story:

There is a feeling among some of McCain’s fellow [Vietnam] veterans that his break with them on Iraq can be traced, at least partly, to his markedly different experience in Vietnam. McCain’s comrades in the Senate will not talk about this publicly. They are wary of seeming to denigrate McCain’s service, marked by his legendary endurance in a Hanoi prison camp, when in fact they remain, to this day, in awe of it. And yet in private discussions with friends and colleagues, some of them have pointed out that McCain, who was shot down and captured in 1967, spent the worst and most costly years of the war sealed away, both from the rice paddies of Indochina and from the outside world. During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.

Net-net: McCain, locked up and tortured to his breaking point by what he understood to be his country’s enemy, never got to see for himself that quagmires like the war in Indochina cannot be “won” in any meaningful way through the use of any amount of US military force. Senators John Kerry, Jim Webb, and Chuck Hagel (and former Senator Max Cleland), having stayed out of North Vietnamese hands, can now understand the futility of the Bush-McCain approach to the Iraqi war and occupation.

That former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey (who is quoted in the article dismissing the “McCain sees it differently because of his war experience” theory) was a hawk on Iraq, despite serving all of his time in Vietnam outside of a POW camp, is not broached by Bai.

I do not mean to dispute the idea that a man’s experiences in war might color his worldview from there on out, or even that Senator McCain’s view might be different because of his imprisonment. Rather, I take issue with the premise that McCain’s stance on matters Iraq can be explained through this particular glossy, psych-lite analysis.

And I’m not alone in my doubts. Beyond the aforementioned disbelief from Senator Kerrey, Bai himself seems to abandon the thesis by midway through the article—or earlier—ping-ponging between the notion that McCain has been erratic in his approach to the use of US military force, and the Senator’s own protestations that he has been nothing but consistent throughout his public life.

Bai does mention how the returning POW chose to study at the Naval War College—implying (to my way of seeing it) that a man whose “experience” we are supposed to favor over his election year competitors actually got his ideas from books. But Bai then explains that the intellectual history of the Republican Party breaks it into three groups—the isolationists, the realists, and the idealists—and then helps to burnish McCain’s “maverick” status by basically taking the Senator at his word when he infers that McCain’s views on military force don’t neatly fit into any camp (though Bai does write that he believes McCain to be closer to the idealists—those that would use military force to promote what they call democracy).

That the article’s central theory (theories?) serves as nothing more than a structure awkwardly wrapped around an excuse for a (another) canned and detail-deficient McCain peroration is made abundantly clear by one of Bai’s own realizations:

What was startling about this conversation was that, while McCain was talking about the dangers of intervening in a Zimbabwe or a Burma, he might just as well have been talking about the invasion of Iraq. Didn’t that country, too, have a colonial history that had been carelessly considered, to say the least? Didn’t the war’s proponents fail to plan more than a few weeks out or to ask the hard questions about how their soldiers might be greeted in the streets?

McCain disarmingly agrees with Bai, but then goes on to perpetuate the lie that Iraq was different because everyone believed at the start of the war that the alleged existence of WMD justified invasion. Bai, to his credit, mentions that this is an arguable point. Sadly, rather than argue it, though, Bai contends that the 2008 election is not about why we invaded, but whether we should stay.

That is convenient for the candidate, since avoiding the first five years of this war’s history allows McCain to skirt accountability for a long list of proclamations about Iraq—many of them contradictory, and all of them wrong.

As if to underscore that point, Bai mentions to McCain that he received a 10-page booklet from the Center for American Progress filled with the Senator’s unimpressive prognostications on Iraq.

McCain shrugs this off and insists that he will never waver from his support of the war, no matter what the personal cost. “As I said a year ago,” he told me, “I would rather lose a campaign than a war.” If he doesn’t make the most persuasive argument of his life, he risks losing both

And that’s the final line of the article—that’s where Bai leaves it. And, no doubt, Bai would like that to tie a nice little bow on his thesis—the steadfast candidate with the consistent worldview shaped by time spent as a POW 40 years ago.

Well, the quote, and, even more to the point, Bai’s last line, are revealing, but not of anything that Bai discusses in his long story.

If there is a constancy to be gleaned here, if there is a motivation that is uncovered by McCain’s current conversation and his various political conversions, it is, to me, the most obvious one: ambition.

What runs consistently through John McCain’s lifetime of discourse on the use of his country’s military might is his own desire to win—not any war, but his own, personal battles. And, since the early 1980’s, those battles have been for higher and higher public office. If there appear to be inconsistencies in McCain’s positions, it is because deep down, at his core, John McCain is a man that wants above all else to be president—and his positions need to serve that ambition. McCain might rather lose a war than a campaign (though I would dispute even that), but the war in Iraq has already been lost, while the campaign is technically still an open question.

That the war was lost by the men that McCain was forced to embrace in order to win his party’s nomination just makes his true motivations more obvious. That the presumptive Republican nominee must now try to shoehorn that bear hug into a respectable narrative makes him rather pathetic.

Pathetic, too, is the way Bai and many of his establishment media cohorts can’t quite bring themselves to report on the obvious. The title of this article is The McCain Doctrines—plural—so Bai is apparently open to the idea that the POW theory is rife with inconsistencies. Granted, my take on this McMess is also psychoanalysis of the most amateur rank, but it seems just as plausible, and, being far more simple, much more likely.

Alas, Occam’s razor would probably not get Bai on the cover of the Times Magazine—and, if experience is any guide, it might get him thrown off the “Straight Talk Express.”

Which, of course, would not serve Bai’s ambition in the least.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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