To revive his struggling presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain went to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington last Wednesday. His mission: clarify his position on the war. He helped to articulate where he stood by standing in contrast to the Democrats, whose current approach to Iraq is illogical and spineless, he said.
"Will this nation's elected leaders make the politically hard but strategically vital decision to give General [David] Petraeus our full support and do what is necessary to succeed in Iraq?" he asked. "Or will we decide to take advantage of the public's frustration, accept defeat and hope that whatever the cost to our security, the politics of defeat will work out better for us than our opponents? For my part, I would rather lose a campaign than a war."
If McCain does eventually lose his campaign, it could very well be because it's so bogged down by Iraq. After his speech at VMI, a reporter asked him if he worried about this. "I do not worry or concern myself about that," the senator responded, a slight edge in his voice.
"Is General Petraeus now your campaign manager?" another reporter shouted. McCain looked irritated. "That's not very kind," he scolded.
Another reporter raised his hand. "Senator, you were defeated by Bush in 2000," he said. "With your stance on the 'surge' in Iraq, is it possible that you will be defeated by George Bush again in 2008?" McCain paused, a grimace on his face emerging. "I do not allow my views and my concerns about the future of the United States of America to be affected in any way by my personal ambitions," he answered.
In the run-up to the 2000 election, much was made of McCain's reputation as a straight talker. He became a household name by nearly derailing the establishment candidate, George W. Bush. And since the start of the war, Bush and McCain have talked differently about Iraq. The Arizona senator had long been a critic of the handling of the war. He joined his colleagues in 2005 to criticize the president for couching the effort in rosy terms instead of acknowledging the violence on the ground.
But last week, McCain began to look and sound like his one-time rival. He spoke positively about security conditions in Baghdad-even as he traveled through a market there under heavy military guard. In his speech this week, McCain sounded much like Bush as he promoted the idea that the surge was working, citing "measurable progress" in Baghdad and Anbar province. The commander-in-chief was less mathematical, but just as optimistic earlier this week when he said, "What I'm telling you is, according to David Petraeus, with whom I speak on a weekly basis, we're beginning to see some progress toward the mission-that they're completing the mission."
Last week Vice President Dick Cheney told Rush Limbaugh that the Democrats were ready to accept defeat. "I do believe that a significant portion of the Democrats, including, I think, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, are adamantly opposed to the war and prepared to pack it in and come home in defeat, rather than put in place or support a policy that will lead to victory," he said.
Bashing the Democrats dovetails with the White House strategy to portray them as weakening U.S. policy-whether it's Pelosi visiting Syria, or Democrats adding a deadline for withdrawal to the latest spending on the war in Iraq. "The broader issue is to reinforce the long-standing reservation about the Democratic Party on national security," says a senior Bush aide who wouldn't be named discussing internal strategy. But even the White House acknowledges there are obvious limits to that approach. According to a recent poll for the Pew Research Center, almost six in 10 Americans want to see their member of Congress vote for a withdrawal of troops by August of next year-including a third of Republicans.
What's a GOP candidate to do? In talking about the chance of total defeat in Iraq, McCain uses language about the war that never crosses Bush's lips. "We should have no illusion that success is certain," McCain told cadets at VMI. He pressed for the public to allow the surge to have a chance to work-but allowed that it might be too late. "Given our security interests and our moral investment in Iraq, so long as we have a chance to prevail, we must try to prevail," he said. "As General Petraeus has repeatedly stated, it will be several months or more before we know with any confidence whether we can turn this war around." McCain also compared the situation in Iraq to the one in Rwanda before the genocidal slaughter of its Tutsi population, suggesting a future bloodbath that Bush has barely hinted at.
Yet the bulk of his speech was a repeat of Bush's argument for staying in Iraq. Like the president, McCain prefers to talk about Iraq as a counterterrorist operation involving Al Qaeda-not as a bloody sectarian war. (Most serious analysis of the conflict, including that of the intelligence agencies, however, portrays the war as sectarian in nature with limited al Qaeda involvement.) "Al Qaeda terrorists are the ones preparing the car bombs, firing the Katyusha rockets, planting the IEDs," he explained. Their goal, says McCain, is to create "a conflagration that will cause Americans to lose heart and leave, so they can return to their primary mission-planning and executing attacks on the United States and destabilizing America's allies."
This is Bush's view, too. "They have made it clear … they want to drive us from Iraq to establish safe haven in order to launch further attacks," Bush told troops at Fort Irwin, Calif., last week. "In my judgment, defeat-leaving before the job was done, which I would call defeat-would make this United States of America at risk to further attack." The war, he's saying, is a test of wills between Americans and Al Qaeda. And for now, McCain's struggle is a test of words with voters.