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May 23, 2006

McCain Gives Us More Straight Talk About How Great Santa Claus Is

In John McCain's spate of graduation speeches this spring, he's told the story of his unlikely friendship with a man named David (no last name given). Apparently David had traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and denounced the war on the radio, which was played in McCain's cell. Later they met, David apologized, and they became close.

According to McCain, soon after David traveled to Hanoi he had a big change of heart:

A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country. And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a tragic mistake by going to Vietnam, and he still did. He had seen what he believed were his country's faults, and he still saw them. But he realized he had let his criticism temporarily blind him to his country's generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his failing deeply.

Okay, that's the Straight Talk version of history. Now let's examine the historical version of history.

The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked the territory of theirs that Israel had captured during the Six Day War in 1967. During the first two days, Egypt and Syria were so successful the Israeli government became deeply worried that pre-67 Israel itself might be overrun. One reason for their fear was that they were running low on military supplies.

Now, it is true the U.S. then launched the huge airlift of weapons to Israel, called Operation Nickle Grass, that McCain referred to. But to claim this was due to American "generosity" is like telling children they're getting chocolate because the Easter Bunny is so generous—except the Easter Bunny story is more honest.

First of all, I doubt even one in three Americans was aware the war was going on, much less was breaking down the doors of the White House demanding that we rearm Israel. Second, U.S. strategy, as devised by Henry Kissinger, was to "let Israel come out ahead, but bleed." (Kissinger felt some degree of Arab victory would make a later peace deal more likely, and also was concerned that too much U.S. aid too soon would damage U.S. relations with the rest of the mideast.)

So the U.S. would have been perfectly happy to stay out of it for a while longer. However, the U.S. hopped to with the airlift because on October 8th and 9th we began hearing from Israel that they were seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons. This, of course, would inevitably have led to World War III between America and the Soviet Union.

The U.S. reaction was exactly what Israel expected. As Seymour Hersh writes in The Sampson Option, Israel had two reasons for signaling they would use nukes if necessary. One, they wanted the Soviet Union to rein in Egypt and Syria. And reason number two?

...such a drastic step would force the United States to begin an immediate and massive resupply of the Israeli military. There was widespread rage inside the Israeli cabinet at the Nixon White House—aimed especially at Henry Kissinger—over what was correctly perceived in Israel as an American strategy of delaying the resupply...

Thus does McCain convert the most cold-blooded realpolitik on the part of the U.S. and Israeli governments into a happy fairy tale about how his wayward friend realized America is good, good, GOOD!

People should keep this in mind when Senor Straight Talk speaks in a quavering voice about our great moral cause in Iraq.

(For more on McCain's truthiness-telling, see here.)

UPDATE: See comments below for discussion on whether I'm 100% right here or merely 98% right.

Posted at May 23, 2006 06:47 AM | TrackBack

Ahhhh - but America WAS generous and good to give nuclear weapons to Israel in the first place!

We will continue to keep this web site under surveillance - probably at work, while we should be doing other things.

Posted by: America at May 23, 2006 07:47 AM

Interesting. Translated Israeli memoirs of the YK War that I've read don't make much of the US resupply effort, and of course they don't say anything about how seriously they contemplated the nuclear option. In the first 48 hours of the war Moshe Dayan spread a wave of defeatism and depression within the cabinet that apparently hit Golda Meier pretty hard, but by October 10th or thereabouts -- before the impact of US support was felt -- the Israelis had recovered a good bit of their confidence. I've always thought that our airlift had mainly symbolic value.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at May 23, 2006 07:55 AM

As Tom Lehrer so eloquently put it,

"The Lord's our shepherd says the Psalm,
But just in case, We'd better get a bomb!"

Posted by: Marcus at May 23, 2006 09:11 AM

One thing I've noticed in my limited experience here on planet Earth is that the lowliest peon on the totem pole in most any shithole anywhere in the world anyone'd care to name understands--and in rhetorical 'practice' is careful to distinguish between--America (or 'Americans') and their government.

The point here is: One needn't be a rocket scientist to understand this point.

So, that's why I'm skeptical of ALL 'rhetorticians', EVERYWHERE who (apparently) STILL don't 'get it'...

Posted by: Mike at May 23, 2006 11:19 AM

Although you write that Israel wanted the Soviet Union to "reign in" Egypt and Syria, you actually mean that they wanted the Soviet Union to "rein in" those two countries.

I changed my party registration in 2000 so I could vote for McCain against Bush in a primary in my state. After the selection by the Supreme Court I changed back. My regard for McCain has since gone down quite a bit.

Posted by: mistah charley at May 23, 2006 03:15 PM

Well, realpolitics or not - I have no doubt that this David guy could actually be a real person. He forgot to mention, however, that for each David having this 'generosity and the goodness' epiphany there were probably at least a hundred Mohameds getting the opposite one. So, what's the point?

Posted by: abb1 at May 23, 2006 03:23 PM

I'll highlight the words you didn't.

He had believed America had made a tragic mistake by going to Vietnam, and he still did. He had seen what he believed were his country's faults, and he still saw them.

Yes the generosity was a fairy tail, but the fact is, "David" had not changed his mind. He still recognised it was wrong to fight there.

Posted by: spiiderweb at May 23, 2006 09:55 PM

McCain's pretty little speech holds a nice message to the graduates which is seemingly don't think, just listen to your elders and follow the leader. He is clearly singling out bloggers with his tale of himself as an impetuous youth while mixing in a good dose of how good it is to discuss these things in order to illustrate what a fair minded person he actually is.

Since McCain is a possible candidate in the upcoming election what is his voting record?

S AMDT 244 to S Con Res 18: To expand access to preventive health care services that reduce unintended pregnancy (including teen pregnancy), reduce the number of abortions, and improve access to women's health care.

McCain voted no.

H J Res 47: Increasing the statutory limit on the public debt.

This bill increased congress' ability to borrow money and increase debt and...

McCain voted yes.

Official Title of Legislation:

S Amdt 3103 to S Con Res 83: To restore funding for the civil works programs of the Corps of Engineers, the Federal Water Pollution Control State Revolving Fund, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal conservation programs, and other natural resource needs, through an offset achieved by closing corporate tax loopholes.

McCain voted no.

Official Title of Legislation:

S Amdt 3071 to S Con Res 83: To increase funding for Title I grants and reduce debt by closing corporate tax loopholes.

Vote to adopt an amendment that adds $3 billion for education, training, employment, and social services programs for 2007 and increases federal revenues by $180 million.

McCain voted no. I guess he does not believe in jobs or increasing federal revenue to offset his increases in public debt.

Official Title of Legislation:

S Amdt 2612 to S 2020: To improve the Federal Trade Commission's ability to protect consumers from price-gouging during energy emergencies, and for other purposes.

Vote on a motion to waive the Budget Act in order to adopt an amendment that makes it illegal to sell crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates at a price that is excessive or takes unfair advantage during a declared state of emergency.

McCain voted no. McCain seems to be a good friend to the oil companies.

Official Title of Legislation:

S Amdt 44 to S 256: To amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide for an increase in the Federal minimum wage.

McCain voted no. Nice guy and a stout liberal.

Official Title of Legislation:

S AMDT 3263 to S 2260: To make it illegal, in most cases, to tape a phone conversation without the consent of all parties.

McCain voted no.

Official Title of Legislation:

S Amdt 2476 to S 1042: To establish a special committee of the Senate to investigate the awarding and carrying out of contracts to conduct activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and to fight the war on terrorism.

Vote to adopt an amendment that creates a special committee to investigate the awarding of contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq taking into consideration: bidding, methods of contracting, subcontracting, oversight procedures, allegations of wasteful practices, accountability and lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq.

McCain voted no. Don't question your elders!

These are just a few and you can read more at the Project Vote Smart website.

I guess McCain is not such a maverick after all, just another republican conservative tow the line for Bush asshole.

Posted by: rob payne at May 23, 2006 11:33 PM

You're totally right about the Santa Claus aspect -- we didn't give them supplies for their beaux yeux. And you're totally right about Kissinger's strategy, and that it was abruptly and unexpectedly reversed.

But I don't actually think the nuclear story is true. Most every other historian disagrees with Hersh on this. And it's got two big holes. Besides the fact that the rest of his reporting on the history of Israel's nuclear program doesn't inspire confidence when compared with what are currently considered the gold standards, like Avi Cohen.

The first big hole is that there was an obvious explanation given at the time that everyone confirms in their memoirs and that's perfectly plausible. And that's that we sent the supplies to Israel right after satellites discovered that the Soviet Union was airlifting supplies to Syria. Because that made it a confrontation between the US and SU through proxies -- and then "our" side had to win. It changed everything.

That is completely plausible within the cold war framework of the time. That's exactly how people thought then, and especially how Nixon and Kissinger thought. There's no reason not to believe it. And it perfectly fits the facts.

The second problem is related. Once the US and SU were clearly on opposite sides, it became chillingly clear to both that the middle east had become a trapdoor into Armageddon. Here was a war out of nowhere -- neither the US nor the SU knew it was coming -- and within 2 weeks both of us were at Defcon 3. And these weren't even our favorite allies!

More on that later. But the immediate problem is that Israel wasn't the only one with nuclear bombs. If they threatened to nuke Egypt, the Soviet Union, Egypt's ally, would immediately have threatened to nuke them. Who knows what people what people would have carried out if it had come to events. But threatened, no doubt. Because by then them and us were already implicitly threatening to nuke each other. Dropping one off for Israel would be like a footnote.

And with that, the entire Sampson option falls apart.

There interesting thing about all this is that it led Camp David. Both the US and the SU realized that this was the foremost strategic problem to solve in the world: how not have WWIII happen here. Détente clearly was not enough. And yet we didn't want to solve it through getting chummier. We wanted to solve it by increasing our influence in the middle east.

And then Sadat made it clear that he would be willing to switch allegiance for a price. In fact he was dying to switch allegiance and become our military ally. And that solved everything. All we had to do was give Egypt 2 billion a year and war with Israel was impossible. The other countries could fume all they wanted, but with Egypt out of the equation, all dreams of war were at an end. And our military hegemony over the military power of the Arab states was sealed.

But politically of course the only way to do that was to give 3 billion a year to Israel to balance it out. And that's what we did. And we've been doing it annually ever since.

But I want to repeat: your analysis of McCain is completely on target and wonderfully well put. This change in the bowels of the story doesn't change a thing at its knife point.

Posted by: Michael Pollak at May 24, 2006 03:34 AM

Well, when you talk about Kissinger's (and, to a degree, any professional manager) thought process, it's simply absurd to bring up things like 'generosity' and 'goodness'; these concepts simply don't exist there.

It's all about a chess game, or rather a game of Go. Obviously it would be absurd to characterise a chess move as 'generous' or 'benevolent' - or 'evil' for that matter. These concepts are from another dimension.

Posted by: abb1 at May 24, 2006 10:51 AM

Jonathan -- (Blog comments are for flogging dead horses, right?) Depleted ammunition stocks were a concern for the IDF early in the war and the American resupply effort was welcome, but judging from the considerable (albeit English-language) sources I've consulted about the YK War, I doubt if it figured significantly in the IDF's plans for a counteroffensive. And regardless of what Hersh and Cohen may have written, I'd need to see some solid evidence before believing that Israel used nuclear blackmail to persuade the US to begin this resupply effort. The situation was certainly serious, but so far as I can tell Dayan's extreme pessimism was not echoed by other members of Golda Meier's inner circle of military advisors -- Allon, Bar-Lev, and Galili along with Elazar. (As an aside, I think Cohen overstates the tank losses during the first two days of the war; by my count the IDF only had about 400 tanks available in the Sinai and maybe half that number on the Golan during that period of time, and while losses were heavy at least half remained operational at the end of the day on the 8th.)

Hersh -- well, he's Sy Hersh. Never leaked to him myself, but I've spoken with people (military, for the most part) who have talked with him on & off the record. In my opinion most of his sources are people with axes to grind, disgruntled, ignored by the "powers that be," seeing themselves as Cassandras, who are going to give Hersh the most extreme interpretation of whatever issue he's writing about. So while he's usually on target to some degree, it's wise to mentally scale back a good bit of what he's saying. Sort of like RAF Bomber Command in World War II.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at May 24, 2006 12:53 PM

I'm not saying there's nothing there. Historical truth is like civil trials -- it's the preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a shadow of a doubt. All we can say now about Hersh is (a) his position that this was the key element that swayed things is not the consensus position (b) there are good reasons to believe otherwise.

First off, let me say I don't doubt for a moment that nuclear weapons were mentioned at this time. That no one disputes. And if you think about it, it would shocking if they weren't. "What was the point of building them?" people must have said, if not to turn the tide of a war like this, where Israel was caught completely flat footed and where it looked at first like it might really lose? That is precisely the kind of existential threat the bombs were created to counter. So of course people brought them up.

And the second reason I'm sure they were brought up is because bombs always are. Whenever a country owns nukes, they are always discussed, somewhere by someone, whenever there's a war that looks like it might turn out disastrously. And out of that afterwards almost always comes an argument like Hersh's. It's almost in the nature of the case. All you have to do is say that a central figure mentioned nuclear bombs at a crucial time and The Secret History of that particular war almost writes itself. Those facts by themselves are so inherently shocking. There's a famous story like this about Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu and a several others later. There's one about Korea, there's three about China and a dozen about confrontations with the Soviet Union. And they are all pretty much the same shape: the consensus is that that was one element among many and not the main one.

And in this case, even if you accept it fully, you have to allow that it's packed round with bluff on all sides. And the idea of Kissinger being bluffed in this particular case stretches my credibility. K had many faults, but responding supinely to threats from small countries that owed him favors was not one of them. I can see him and Nixon (who was preoccupied by the events leading up to the Saturday night massacre at the time, leaving K pretty much in control) *saying* this was why they had to do something in order to bully other people who were against it. But I can't see them consciously acting because they were scared of what Israel might do. That would have made their heads explode. A threat like that would have made them want to bomb Israel. K wasn't kidding when he said blackmail would not be an effective tactic. And more realistically, I think if they felt they were being blackmailed, it would have strengthened them in their original intention that Israel needed to be taken down a notch.

On top of that, I have to say, if I have a choice between an incendiary interpretation and an SOP one, all things being equal, I'll choose the later, just because it's usually the way to bet. And in this case, I don't even think all things are equal. I think the Cold War competition argument is much more convincing. But we can go into the minutiae of that offlist. It's way far afield from the original target which is McCain.

Speaking of which, I love your new teaser "See the comments to see whether I'm 100% right about this or only 98% right." It' a pleasure to argue in a forum that is both civil and funny. Real give and take -- now that's a tiny revolution.

Posted by: Michael Pollak at May 24, 2006 12:54 PM