Asked at a New Hampshire campaign stop about possibly staying in Iraq 50 years, John McCain interrupted "Make it a hundred" then offered a precise analogy to what he envisioned: "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so." Lest anyone think he was talking about prolonged war-fighting rather than maintaining a presence in postwar Iraq, he explained: "That would be fine with me, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."
And lest anyone persist in thinking he was talking about war-fighting, he told his questioner: "It's fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintained a presence in a very volatile part of the world."
There is another analogy to the kind of benign and strategically advantageous "presence" McCain was suggesting for postwar Iraq: Kuwait. The United States (with allies) occupied Kuwait in 1991 and has remained there with a major military presence for 17 years. We debate dozens of foreign policy issues in this country. I've yet to hear any serious person of either party call for a pullout from Kuwait.
Why? Because our presence projects power and provides stability for the entire Gulf and for the vulnerable U.S. allies that line its shores.
The desirability of a similar presence in Iraq was obvious as long as five years ago to retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, one of Barack Obama's leading military advisers and his campaign co-chairman. During the first week of the Iraq war, McPeak (an Iraq war critic) suggested in an interview that "we'll be there a century, hopefully. If it works right." (Meaning, if we win.)
Why is that a hopeful outcome? Because maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq would provide regional stability, as well as cement a long-term allied relationship with the most important Arab country in the region.
As McPeak himself said about our long stay in Europe, Japan and Korea, "This is the way great powers operate." One can argue that such a presence in Iraq might not be worth the financial expense. A legitimate point it might require working out the kind of relations we have with Japan, which picks up about 75 percent of the cost of U.S. forces stationed there.
Alternatively, one might advocate simply bolstering our presence in Kuwait, a choice that would minimize risk, albeit at the sacrifice of some power projection. Such a debate would be fruitful and help inform our current negotiations with Baghdad over the future status of American forces.
But a serious argument is not what Democrats are seeking. They want the killer sound bite, the silver bullet to take down McCain. According to Politico, they have found it: "Dems to hammer McCain for '100 years.' "
The device? Charge that McCain is calling for a hundred years of war. Hence:
"He says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq" (Barack Obama, Feb. 19).
"We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years" (Obama, Feb. 26).
"He's willing to keep this war going for 100 years" (Hillary Clinton, March 17).
"What date between now and the election in November will he drop this promise of a 100-year war in Iraq?" (Chris Matthews, March 4).
Why, even a CNN anchor (Rick Sanchez) buys it: "John McCain is telling us . . . that we need to win even if it takes 100 years" (March 16).
As Lenin is said to have said, "A lie told often enough becomes truth." And as this lie passes into truth, the Democrats are ready to deploy it "as the linchpin of an effort to turn McCain's national security credentials against him," reports David Paul Kuhn of Politico.
Hence: A Howard Dean fundraising letter charging McCain with seeking "an endless war in Iraq." And a Democratic National Committee news release in which Dean asserts: "McCain's strategy is a war without end. . . . Elect John McCain and get 100 years in Iraq."
The Annenberg Political Fact Check, a nonprofit and nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, says: "It's a rank falsehood for the DNC to accuse McCain of wanting to wage 'endless war' based on his support for a presence in Iraq something like the U.S. role in South Korea."
The Democrats are undeterred. "It's seldom you get such a clean shot," a senior Obama adviser told Politico. It's seldom that you see such a dirty lie.