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The Real Controversy Behind McCain's '100 Years'

By Gregory Scoblete

It was an off-the-cuff line, but in the YouTube-era, one that promises to dog Senator John McCain throughout the entire general election campaign. Responding to a question during his New Hampshire campaigning, John McCain said he saw no problem with the U.S. remaining in Iraq for 100 years.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seized on the comment to portray McCain as Bush II (or III, but who's counting). Obama indignantly proclaimed that McCain "says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq." Hillary Clinton accused McCain of being "willing to keep this war going for 100 years."

Conservatives have since shot back, claiming that McCain's comments have been willfully misrepresented. They're right. Senator McCain clearly said that the 100 year deployment was fine provided the U.S. was not taking casualties. He was not, pace Obama and Clinton, declaring his desire for a century of combat. He was clearly positioning America's involvement in Iraq in the context of a country that had become a peaceful American ally. "We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so," McCain said at the time.

Coming to McCain's defense, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that "there is another analogy to the kind of benign and strategically advantageous 'presence' McCain was suggesting for postwar Iraq: Kuwait."

The Democrats have chosen to dishonestly hang the "100 years" sound-bite around McCain's neck. In doing so, they're missing the real millstone: McCain's analogies. There is simply no real parallel between the role of the U.S. military in South Korea (or Kuwait, or Japan) and Iraq. It is McCain's suggestion that those deployments are applicable models for the U.S. in Iraq, not a quote out of context that should be the focal point of the debate.

In both South Korea and Kuwait, the U.S. military served first to expel invaders, then to ensure they stayed out. Though both wars ended with ambiguous results, they had clearly defined endings. The fighting stopped, and with it, U.S. casualties. We remained based in South Korea and Kuwait to defend these nations from a single external threat along clearly identified, internationally recognized, geographic boundaries.

The situation in Iraq couldn't be more different. The U.S. is not waging a war against a nation but countering multiple insurgencies. Our military must not only keep external powers out, it must also keep internal rivals to the government down. We saw this in the recent fighting in Basra, where the U.S. was called on by the Iraqi government not to save it from an external foe, but to put down a rival Iraqi militia. Far from passive deterrence, the U.S. will be called upon to take an active role in shaping Iraq's internal political development by providing security to elements of Iraqi society that we wish to see succeed.

All this, while simultaneously ensuring that Iraqi citizens do not return to killing each other in large-scale outbursts of tribal or sectarian violence.

The threats to Iraq's security are almost exclusively internal, not external, as they were in Kuwait and South Korea, or post-war Germany and Japan for that matter. The one serious, near-term external threat to Iraq comes from Turkey (a NATO ally) - and a Turkish invasion would come as a response to internal Iraqi developments (i.e. Kurdish secession). Whereas the U.S. had the benefit of borders and demilitarized zones to separate combatants in South Korea and Kuwait, it enjoys no such geographical luxuries in Iraq. The threat is spread throughout the entire country and can vary on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

Moreover, the nature of the violence in Iraq differs greatly from previous U.S. conflicts. In Kuwait, the U.S. pushed Saddam's Army out and the fighting stopped. In Iraq, we are fighting insurgencies that want to push us out. Whereas in Kuwait or South Korea, the U.S. presence served to deter attacks against our allies, our very presence in Iraq is a catalyst to further fighting.

There are, in short, fundamental difference between how American power was used in South Korea and Kuwait and how it is being used in Iraq. These differences bear directly on the question of whether or not we should remain in the country, and for how long.

Democrats are misleadingly suggesting that McCain wants the U.S. to wage a war in Iraq en-perpetuity. The real premise of McCain's "100 year" remark is that the forces battling to evict the U.S. and gain control of Iraq (or some portion of it) will learn to accommodate themselves to the American-backed central government and to a long-term U.S. military presence in their country. The fighting would effectively end, and the U.S. military would oversee the peaceful development of a democratic Middle East. That is certainly not impossible. No one would have guessed in 1940 that Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany would peacefully consent to a U.S. military occupation of their countries as they underwent a democratic transformation.

It just took two nuclear bombs, millions upon millions of dead and the complete devastation of both countries to get there.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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