Commentary Magazine


James Cooper Gets It Wrong

The premise of this New York Times article is that there is a contradiction at the heart of John McCain’s trip to the Middle East and Europe. As the second paragraph has it, the trip

offered him the chance to test his hope that he could repair America’s tattered reputation by shifting course on some of the policies that have alienated its allies, in areas like global warming and torture. But he is making his foray even as he embraces what much of the world sees as the most hated remnant of the Bush presidency: the war in Iraq.

In the way that supposedly non-opinionated reporters do, the author, James Cooper, quotes a few experts, including my Council on Foreign Relations colleague James M. Goldgeier, in support of his thesis.

There is a major problem with his argument, however. Yes, it’s true that America’s invasion of Iraq has cost us a lot of popular support among our allies. But it doesn’t therefore follow that a precipitous withdrawal of the kind advocated by Clinton and Obama would restore our standing. It might actually exacerbate our loss of esteem. An American pullout anytime soon would result in greater chaos that would most likely spill over across Iraq’s borders. The cry would go up around the world: Why did the Americans abdicate their responsibility to stabilize Iraq? Why, after having gone in so recklessly, did they compound their errors by leaving recklessly too?

That is, in fact, what leaders in the Middle East and Europe privately worry about. As I’ve heard from them in my travels–and as McCain (whose campaign I advise on foreign policy) no doubt also has–our allies may not have supported our initial foray into Iraq, but now that we’re there, they want us to see it through to an acceptable conclusion. If Obama and Clinton think they can make Uncle Sam revered by simply leaving Iraq in the lurch, they are deeply mistaken. That’s the kind of simplistic thinking that is only persuasive to the New York Times.