Iraqis and Americans alike were stunned by the audacity of Senator John McCain's heavily publicized (and heavily armed) excursion through Baghdad's Shorja market last weekend. There was the leading proponent of the war on Capitol Hill, setting out to confirm his recent claim that the escalation of U.S. forces is greatly improving conditions on the ground, accompanied by a handful of congressional colleagues. He seemed to think nobody would notice that their little shopping trip also included a platoon of soldiers, three Black Hawk choppers, and two Apache gunships.
Neither the Iraqi merchants used as props in this strange exercise nor the American voters who were its intended targets could possibly have been deceived by such a charade. So the question that inevitably arises is whether McCain & Co. are still attempting to dupe us — or whether they have finally duped themselves.
Consider the happy talk from Representative Mike Pence, an ultraconservative Indiana Republican who has visited Iraq on several occasions. At the press conference that inevitably followed the Shorja photo op, Pence said he had been inspired by the opportunity to "mix and mingle unfettered among ordinary Iraqis," drinking tea and haggling over carpets. To him, the Baghdad shops were "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime." Senator Lindsey Graham, another McCain sidekick, boasted of buying "five rugs for five bucks," marveling that "just a few weeks ago, hundreds of people, dozens of people were killed in the same place."
Then they climbed back into the armored vehicles that served as their tourist buses and returned to the Green Zone.
Aside from the theatrics of the Shorja excursion, however, the message delivered by McCain, Graham, and Pence was scarcely different from what each of them usually says after visiting Iraq. In February 2005, for instance, when McCain made his famous trip with Senator Hillary Clinton, he claimed to believe that "the dynamic [of the war] has changed from Iraqi insurgents versus the U.S. ... to Iraqi insurgents versus the Iraqi government." Back then, he declared himself "far more optimistic" than he had previously felt, adding: "I think we have an opportunity to succeed."
According to McCain, there is always an opportunity to succeed, provided that we are willing to sacrifice more young Americans and hundreds of billions more dollars. But then again, this is a man who thinks we didn't expend enough lives and dollars in Vietnam — although he would be hard-pressed to explain why the world would be better today if 100,000 Americans and another million Vietnamese had died in that war.
As for Pence, the only conceivable purpose of his latest trip was to pick up those rugs. His sunny comments were as predictable this time as when he visited Iraq in September 2005, when he told The Indianapolis Star that spending two days there had convinced him the United States was "winning the war." General John Abizaid, then the commander of U.S. forces, had assured him there was a viable plan and that the plan was working, all of which Pence dutifully repeated to the folks back home.
On this trip, none of these jolly politicians mentioned the rise in killings across Iraq during the past month. None of them even seemed aware that the temporary reduction of violence in Baghdad appears to have driven even greater carnage outside the capital — such as the bombing in Kirkuk that slaughtered a group of schoolgirls the same day that Graham and Pence got their bargain carpets.
Even if the "surge" succeeds in suppressing violence in Baghdad for a few weeks or months by pouring in tens of thousands of American troops, what would that mean? Do McCain and his colleagues actually believe that we can somehow provide enough soldiers and Marines to achieve the pacification of every city and town in Iraq? If so, how long would our troops be expected to police the terrorist incidents and revenge attacks that now occur every day in this civil war?
Congressional hawks like McCain echo President Bush's complaint that the Democrats are undermining the war by seeking to set a date for an American withdrawal. They insist that the war's critics should simply shut up and send more money and more soldiers while we see whether this "plan" works better than the previously discarded plans.
But the truth is that the president and his echoes are merely playing for time with American lives. They have no plan because there is no military solution to this war. The war propaganda doesn't work any better than the war plan — which is why the Democrats have been emboldened and why McCain's presidential prospects are rapidly declining.
Joe Conason writes for Salon and The New York Observer.