I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fred Hiatt hails McCain's courage and seriousness

Fred Hiatt's Washington Post Editorial today examines the plan for a "surge" in Iraq and ultimately takes no real position on it. He can bring himself only to say that "several questions give us pause." After devoting substantial space to the "rationale" behind escalation as advocated by John McCain and Joe Lieberman, Hiatt preserves his Seriousness Credentials with this genuflecting to the advocates of an escalated war:

Without a surge, Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman warn, the war will be lost. This is a serious argument, and the two senators have been principled and even courageous in making it.

Any argument for more war is, in the eyes of the Washington Establishment, always, by definition "serious." We invaded a country, unleashed the greatest strategic disaster in our history, wrought complete chaos and anarchy in that country, have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of lives, and now some want to send still more troops and escalate what we have been doing? That's a very "serious argument."

And, conversely, the only non-serious argument is leaving, ending the war. Thus, Hiatt leaps to assure his fellow noblemen that his meek and respectful questioning of "surging" does not mean he has joined with those loser, frivolous hippies: "The constructive alternative to a surge is not the abandonment of Iraq." No, perish the thought. It would be unconscionable -- and completely non-serious -- to "abandon" Iraq just as we are doing such good for it.

Beyond the awarding of the trite "seriousness" label, Hiatt (being the Conventional Wisdom font that he is) also recites a growing myth that is starting to take root -- namely, that there is something "courageous" about John McCain's defense of the war and his call for more troops. This is the type of mindless tripe that becomes True in Washington simply by virtue of being repeated enough times by the right people.

There is nothing "courageous" about John McCain's Iraq position. In fact, it's the most politically opportunistic position he can take -- it's really the only politically viable position he could have. That doesn't mean he's advocating it disingenuously. But given McCain's presidential ambitions, advocating escalation uniquely serves his political interests.

He obviously can't advocate withdrawal or say that he changed his mind about the wisdom of the war. Doing that would immediately doom his primary chances in the still-war-crazed GOP. But he also cannot simply attach himself to Bush's conduct of the war because the war is now almost universally recognized as a failure. So affirming the idea of the war while appearing to object only to its execution -- and, specifically, objecting to its insufficiently aggressive execution -- is the only politically viable option McCain has.

By doing this, McCain gets to support the war while distancing himself from its failures. And, more importantly, he is able to generate support among the GOP Dead Enders whose suspiciousness of him was a serious impediment to his hopes for winning the nomination.

If McCain were to acknowledge that he was wrong about the war in Iraq, that would be principled and courageous. If he were to advocate a troop withdrawal, that would be as well. Those positions would result in great political costs for McCain, and taking action even knowing that you will suffer harm is virtually the definition of a "courageous" act.

But McCain suffers no harm from advocating increased troops. It is the only chance he has for preventing this horrendous war from dooming his presidential campaign before it even begins. That doesn't prove that McCain is wrong in his arguments. But it does prove that there is nothing "courageous" about voicing them. It's the only choice he has.

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