There’s a growing sense among many Democrats, regardless of whom they voted for Tuesday, that John McCain will be incredibly tough to beat in the general election. Admittedly, some shrug him off, pointing to the country’s overwhelming opposition to Bush and the war in Iraq as definite signs pointing to the impossibility of a Republican victory. Others see McCain as having shot himself in the foot with his alarmingly pro-war position on Iraq.
Yet McCain’s oft-cited strengths — his perceived independence and Vietnam veteran status — have allowed him the unquestioned credibility to draw on two dominant beliefs that haunt the current discourse on the war. For one, the media’s failure to question or critically examine the efficacy of the troop surge has let the misconception of its success stand as fact. Second is the right wing’s post-Vietnam narrative that if America had stayed tough in Vietnam, been stronger and more determined, it could have won the war and triumphed over Communism. That narrative has assumed the mantle of legitimate historical interpretation in popular discourse and is embedded in the country’s collective consciousness. McCain, because of the torture he endured as a Vietnam POW, can present himself as a kind of martyr for an ungrateful and weak country and is thus uniquely poised to mobilize that narrative in a national campaign for the presidency — especially in this moment where the surge’s success is so acclaimed.
McCain is not foolish — I think he really sees the opportunity here. Otherwise, why would he be volunteering the idea of a 100-year occupation of Iraq? If he or his campaign really saw the war as a political liability, then he wouldn’t be spouting that kind of rhetoric.
In answering questions at a Jan. 27 event in Florida, McCain made his most troubling statement on the war to date: “I’ve gotta give you some straight talk my friends: It’s a tough war we’re in. It’s not going to be over right away. There’s going to be other wars. I’m sorry to tell you there’s going to be other wars. We will never surrender but there will be other wars.” He implicitly demanded that Americans be tough enough for this war. Describing the wounded and promising to take care of them, McCain then called up graphic images of post-traumatic stress disorder and the “terrible wounds” that improvised explosive devices inflict in Iraq; he urged Americans to be tough enough to look these horrors in the face and not to let our men and women down.
These statements are the clearest signs yet that McCain is not going to run from the war, but rather will make it the focus of his message, even taking it to another level. McCain is arguing not just for a longer occupation in Iraq but more broadly for a more formal American empire. To think that this is an obviously failing strategy ignores the unique power that McCain has to convey, in our current moment, the same kinds of messages we heard about American toughness and strength after Vietnam and after Sept. 11.
His arguments come amidst another emerging strain of popular discourse: a conventional wisdom that America is in a decline that threatens the continuance of its global power. Last week’s New York Times Magazine’s cover story declared American hegemony was dead; and, in a less-noticed front-page story, Kevin Sack argued that Americans in recent polling were increasingly fearful bout that decline and what it means for their lives.
So when McCain asks us this fall if we’re going to be tough enough to stay in Iraq, he’s also going to be asking: Are we tough enough to maintain and continue to expand our global power? Are we going to say that our soldiers suffered so brutally in vain, like he did in Vietnam? Are we going to be tough enough to stave off impending terrorism? The argument will be very straightforward: If we leave Iraq, we will be seen as weak, “the terrorists” will come and kill us, and American civilization and its dominant global position as a superpower will collapse.
McCain doesn’t just rely on a simple politics of fear. The underlying logic of the global war on terror which continues to go virtually unquestioned is the overarching discursive framework in which he situates his call. Fear is certainly a part of why Bush got his way on matters of war and national security. But the lesson of the Cold War era applies: these politics are never just about fear. In this case, the war on terror is always what is at stake; and I am terrified at how effectively positioned McCain is to make this election is not just about Iraq, but about whether America is going to continue to exist as an imperial power.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.