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Two Cities McCain Stands to Lose

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Earlier this year a close friend of John McCain gave me fair warning: McCain was about to become much more conservative, and I would not like what was coming. He was right. I did not like McCain's speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and I think his support of intelligent design is -- sorry, John -- just plain brainless. But it is not the supposedly new McCain that bothers me, it's the old one: His incessant sword-rattling has gotten just plain rattling.

At the moment McCain is probably the most prominent proponent of the pour-it-on school regarding Iraq. He wants the United States to considerably beef up its forces there, which as far as I'm concerned is throwing good money after bad -- providing the insurgents with even more targets as well. But even if additional troops could succeed in tamping down the level of violence in Baghdad, we have learned enough about Iraq to suggest that it would be only a temporary reprieve. The rivalries, hatreds and vengefulness that are so much a part of Iraqi religious, sectarian, tribal and God-knows-what-else animosities will erupt the minute Uncle Sam's boot is off Baghdad's neck. So what's the point?

If this were McCain's only example of looking to solve a problem by force or additional force, it might not loom so large. After all, his remedy has a certain facile logic and appeal. But his position regarding Iraq is really no different from the one he once held, and still does, about Vietnam -- "a noble cause," he has called that misbegotten war. There, too, he felt that a greater U.S. effort would have resulted in an American victory. Not likely. But even if McCain was right, that effort would have entailed an escalation that was politically unsustainable. The American people had been bled long enough in Vietnam and could not, for the life of them, figure out why. These many years later it's even harder to answer that question. Just what was that war about?

What's more troubling in McCain's case is that too often in the past he has played the role of the sword-rattling heckler. Back in 1994 his plan for what to do about North Korea's developing nuclear program was a version of the old "bomb 'em back to the Stone Age" threat. If sanctions did not work, he said, he had another idea: "I know what they understand, and that is the threat of extinction." Similarly, and later in the decade (1999), McCain was urging the Clinton administration to pour it on with ground troops in Kosovo. Not only did the president disagree but so did the military and much of the Republican leadership.

McCain has attributed some of his more bellicose statements to the freedom that a senator -- and not a president -- has to mouth off. Maybe. No doubt, though, the senator likes to speak loudly as well as carry a big stick. Back when he first ran for president, this threatening language did not matter much. The country was at peace and no enemy was in sight. Now, though, the country is at war and there seems to be an enemy behind every tree. For some -- particularly the political independents who launched him into the political firmament back in 2000 -- McCain may now seem scary. In the 2000 New Hampshire primary, he ran better among independents than he did with Republicans -- and even got some Democratic votes. That will not happen again.

Anyone who knows McCain appreciates that his call for more troops in Iraq is not, at bottom, part of any political strategy. McCain is a thoroughly admirable man. Like any other politician, he will punt when he has to, but he is fundamentally honest, with sound political values. For a long time those values -- a belief in public service, a visceral hostility toward the ways of Washington's K Street lobbying crowd and a sense of honor that his Vietnamese captors came to appreciate -- obscured the always present, but muffled, sound of drums and bugles.

But the martial music grows louder and more insistent as McCain leads a charge whose mission cannot be defined and whose sound is increasingly grating to the American people. Colin Powell put it nicely Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent [to Iraq] . . . my first question to whoever is proposing it is, what mission is it these troops are to accomplish?" That "somebody" is none other than McCain. This is a sad tale of two cities. To secure Baghdad for a brief time, McCain risks losing Washington forever.

cohenr@washpost.com

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