National security not McCain’s strong suit |

National security not McCain’s strong suit

Nick Fickling

Sen. John McCain recently took on Sen. Barack Obama, twisting Obama’s response to a hypothetical Ohio debate question and using it to mock Obama for “not knowing that Al Qaeda was in Iraq.” Obama cleverly turned the mockery back on McCain by saying: “I have some news for John McCain, there was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.” McCain has since admitted making his mocking remark without actually seeing the Ohio Democratic debate. He seemingly based his ill-chosen remarks on prompts from others.

That McCain is so poorly prepared that he can mock his opponent without doing his homework is not a good sign, and does not bode well for a McCain presidency.

Either McCain chose poorly when assembling his team, or he failed to understand the gist of what his henchmen told him happened at the Ohio debate. The rather un-presidential McCain comments, and the far more presidential response by Obama, has me questioning the very foundation upon which McCain’s candidacy is based: “national security.”

McCain seems to view his national security credentials as superior to those of Obama, or Clinton, with the Iraq war and the 2007 surge as topics that Republicans, and McCain in particular, have an advantage over. Fearmongering worked well for George Bush in 2004, so playing the national security card might well work again in 2008, particularly with the ‘vastly experienced’ McCain taking on newbie Obama or weepy Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Unfortunately, the McCain rhetoric over the past few years has me less and less confident that he knows what he is talking about. The slogan “No Surrender” on his campaign bus, and repeated many times in recent speeches, worries me for it begs the question: “Who would we surrender to?” Terrorist insurgencies are not won or lost by armies but by politicians using, or losing, the hearts and minds of the people.

Military “victory” is of course possible in limited tactical situations, but for McCain to state that victory is possible in Iraq as a whole is a clear indication that he either doesn’t know what he is talking about or is showing his 71-plus years. Neither is encouraging in a presidential candidate.

The concept of the surge is a sound one if the objective is to stabilize the situation.

Unfortunately a surge alone, without significant political improvements, is never going to do any more than keep the lid on the pot. By definition, a surge has to eventually come to an end, or it isn’t a surge, it is an escalation. In Iraq, the end to the surge has to be the Iraqis taking over responsibility for their own security, and so far the ability of the Iraqis to maintain security in their country, although slowly improving, is limited at best. McCain’s surge has to come to an end this summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently reported together that “2008 will be a year of critical transition in Iraq as our force levels continue to come down, as our mission changes and as Iraqis continue to assert their sovereignty.” Gates talks of force levels coming down because he knows that his overstretched military cannot maintain the surge. Rice talks of force reductions because she knows that Iraqi sovereignty can only come if the United States withdraws to a supporting role and Iraqi Brigades stand up as we stand down.

Interestingly, Obama’s and Clinton’s rhetoric is more in line with Secretaries Rice and Gates. McCain’s bellicose statements, however, seem to serve the goals of Osama Bin Laden and the Iranians rather more than they serve the American people. I am not sure national security is John’s strongest suit.

Nick Fickling is retired from the British military and lives in the Vail Valley. E-mail him at or

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