Well, it’s John McCain’s nightmare. The man from Arizona has staked his presidential run on an enormous gamble – that the “surge” strategy in Iraq would work, pushing the disaster of the invasion and its aftermath into the past, and painting the nay-sayers – ie. the Democrats – as wimps disguising their cowardice behind common sense.

It’s a risky strategy, but it’s the only one McCain has. If he had come out as an anti-war Republican he would have captured the middleground – and Mitt Romney would be the nominee. Steering hard right, he spoke of being in Iraq for “a hundred years” making a clever-clever argument that continued presence was not the important thing, conflict was. If the US could be in South Korea for decades, why not Iraq?

The question is the answer of course, and McCain is presumably too experienced a soldier to not know that nothing is certain in war. With yesterday’s suicide bomb killing forty in Baghdad, and five US soldiers killed today, there may be an indication that the surge is starting to dissipate and go into backwash.

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Why would that be happening? Well, the surge was predicated on two major strategies: a lockdown of Baghdad, using the increased troop numbers, and basic bribery of various Sunni militias to turn their guns on Al-Qaeda identified groups. It also took advantage of a six-month cease-fire declared by the Mahdi Army, and claimed that to its credit.

The result of this strategy is that Baghdad is a balkanised city, with passage between sectors reliant on an internal permit system. It’s not a long-term recipe for a functioning city, yet it may be the principal reason why sectarian killings have fallen.

Meanwhile, the US has effectively armed a variety of gangs, and turned them into autonomous forces within the space where the Iraqi state should be. It’s a short-term recipe for rough justice, and a long-term recipe for chaos. Two years ago these gangs were fighting the US. Once they have dealt with blow-in radical Islamists, there seems no reason why they should not turn their guns on US forces again.

To gauge what’s going on, take a look at the daily war news for 10 March at Iraq Today, the news collation source, for Baghdad alone. Baghdad is about the size of Sydney or Melbourne, so project that lot onto the map of the places you know, work and live, and decide if the surge is working or not.

If McCain doesn’t know that people fighting to free themselves from foreign occupation will make whatever alliances they need to, he’s wilfully blind of the conflict that defined him, the Vietnam War.

Having fought the French in the 1930s, Ho Chi Minh decided that his best bet in WWII was to ally with them against the Japanese (others such as Lee Kuan Yew, backed the Japanese).

Promised post-war independence was then reneged, so they turned on the French and threw them out in 1954 – initially trying to persuade the US to take their side internationally. Then they threw out the Americans.

Every six months or so the “best and brightest” conducting the war would reassure people that this or that strategy was working, until the media eventually started really calling the military on their lies – one reason at least why the Iraq war is not Vietnam.

So in effect, the surge amounts to an unsustainable lockdown in twin with the arming of one’s future enemies, the whole history of Iraq-US relations in miniature.

McCain is crossing his fingers and hoping that the surge can hold until after November 4, 2008. He’s being helped by the fact that quietly, the first “drawdown” targets for troop transfer have been quietly abandoned.

For the Democrats, the surge holding until after the election – it won’t hold indefinitely – would be a disaster. But it breaking too early would bring its own problems for the Democrats, giving McCain a chance to change course. McCain has a lot of voters who just can’t vote for the war at the moment – but would switch back if given half the chance.

But if it collapses around August, September – when the heat is highest, and tempers fray, because there’s still no electricity for the aircon – then McCain is dust. Either way, he’ll be hoping these latest strikes are still the exception from an old order, not the first instance of a new rule.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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