McCain Speaks Out on Obama's Afghan Policy

It wasn't long ago that John McCain was making the case that an Obama presidency could be dangerous for America. The question facing voters, he warned in October 2008, "is whether this is a man who has what it takes to protect America from Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and other grave threats in the world. And he has given you no reason to answer in the affirmative." At the time, Obama was the hero of those who opposed George W. Bush's war strategy—and who perhaps overlooked Obama's pledge to pursue a "war of necessity" in Afghanistan.

Since losing to Obama last November, McCain has been gentler in his criticisms. At times, he's seemed genuinely interested in helping the president, particularly on war policy. When Obama gave his West Point speech announcing a new Afghan strategy and calling for a surge of 30,000 troops, McCain was initially positive. He supported the president, and praised the surge. In 22 press interviews the following day, he had only one real caveat: he opposed Obama's decision to set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan. Such a pronouncement only encouraged the enemy and discouraged America's allies in the region, he said. At a minimum, he hoped the president had set the date as a flexible target, not a "date certain."

But McCain's generally positive reaction to Obama's Afghan speech darkened when administration officials clarified that the date wasn't flexible after all. The pace of withdrawal was subject to conditions on the ground, but July 2011 was a firm start date. In an interview with two NEWSWEEK reporters Thursday at his Senate office, McCain let loose. "It defies logic," he fumed, waving some papers. "It flies in the face of lessons we have learned." McCain later listed everything else he believed wrong with U.S. foreign policy: engaging Iran hadn't worked, he said; the Israeli-Palestinian situation had been "set back"; the Russians "continue to behave in a belligerent fashion"; and "no president has ever gone to China and had parameters set around his activity" the way the president had during his recent trip. "I continue to do everything to support the president in ways that I can be helpful, but I'm deeply disappointed when a young woman named Neda bleeds to death in a street in Tehran and the administration's reaction is that 'we don't want to upset relations between the two countries and the possibility of successful negotiations'…c The demonstrators in Tehran were chanting, 'Obama! Obama! Are you with us or are you with them?' There was never any doubt who Ronald Reagan was with." With a tight smile McCain added: "So it is what it is. Elections have consequences."

McCain might be forgiven if he harbors some small desire to see Obama stumble. It's not easy losing a grueling national election to someone with less experience, someone you suspect lacks the mettle to lead. Yet McCain has done his best not to succumb to sour feelings. "I have observed [presidential candidates] who take the loss and become angry, bitter, look around for somebody to blame for the failures," he says. "I've watched those individuals and how they reacted, and frankly I didn't admire that." Almost immediately after the election he summoned the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, deciding the best thing was to throw himself "back into the arena, as our beloved TR used to call it, and then you don't think about the pain of the loss." Former campaign aide Charlie Black recalls a breakfast at McCain's Sedona, Ariz., ranch, not two days after polls had closed, listening to McCain and his friend Sen. Lindsey Graham "talking about all the great things they were going to do in the Senate" and their plans to visit the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet McCain quickly found that it was difficult to turn the clock back. He wrote the GOP version of a stimulus bill, hoping the Democrats would compromise on spending. But they didn't. McCain didn't have a big role to play on health care and seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for combating climate change, believing Democratic proposals were too expensive. Moreover, he had to be more cautious than usual about the way he voiced his opposition. It was so easy now for his motives to be misinterpreted. McCain "understands the role he's been assigned" as one of the "strongest voices of the loyal opposition," says Graham, one of McCain's closest allies. "He realizes when he speaks, people listen closer, and they try to assign sentiment to every adjective, so I think he picks his adjectives carefully." Another confidant, who asked not be named discussing his friend's motivations, says McCain "doesn't want to look like a sore loser who comes out swinging because he lost," but also really wants to support Obama if he "does the right thing" on Afghanistan.

Obama could use Republican backing for his war policy. Yet it would be natural for the president to be wary of counting on the GOP to support him over the long haul. Just as many Democrats supported the Iraq War before it became a disaster, then regarded it as "Bush's war," many Republicans will surely be determined to make Afghanistan "Obama's war" if things get worse. Both Graham and Robert Kagan, a former McCain adviser and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, think the administration hasn't done enough to reach out to McCain. "I'm not sure the Obama administration realizes how close the Republican Party has come to just going into direct and total opposition to [White House policy on] Afghanistan, and just saying it's Obama's war," Kagan says. "And I would say that McCain has singlehandedly held the line against that."

But Afghanistan also gives McCain an issue that he can fully address without holding back. As the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he can give long opening statements during hearings and get attention for his views. More than that, people know his track record. He called for a surge in Iraq long before it was popular, and has long advocated a stronger effort in Afghanistan.

Obama favors setting a time to begin a drawdown in large part to send a strong signal to allied Afghans that they need to start taking control of their own destiny. The July date, and the influx of troops and trainers, are incentives for Afghan leaders "to get their act together," says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. McCain speaks instead of pursuing the Iraq model, where a government regarded as weak and corrupt was bolstered by a troop surge, as well as a strong diplomatic effort to win over Sunni Arab tribes. He favors benchmarks for success, "rather than to threaten action which would basically turn the country over to the enemy."

Yet even during the NEWSWEEK interview, McCain had positive things to say about Obama's "admirable" troop decision. He was proud that he'd defended Obama's surge in a TV appearance with Fox's Sean Hannity. He said he'd like to help Obama win popular backing for the surge. Had he been president, he might have sent 40,000 troops instead of 30,000, but if Gen. Stanley McChrystal was OK with 30,000, McCain could live with it. The president "has a problem with his own base," McCain said more than once. "I've played a role in convincing my Republican friends and colleagues and supporters that this isn't Obama's war, this is America's war. I really think his problem is with the left."