The War Within Sen. McCain

(By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 13, 2007

There is no mistaking the anguish of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Sitting in his Senate office, he is uncharacteristically subdued, his voice at times almost inaudible.

Although the Bush administration this week finally embraced his long-standing call to send more troops to Iraq, McCain believes the way it has handled the war "will go down as one of the worst" mistakes in the history of the American military.

"One of the most frustrating things that's ever happened in my political life," he said, "is watching this train wreck."

McCain, an all but announced presidential candidate, offered those assessments toward the end of a lengthy interview Thursday night. No politician in the United States is more clearly identified with President Bush's new policy, and no politician has more to lose if it fails. Democratic opponents have already coined a name for the troop "surge": the McCain Doctrine.

McCain made it clear that he supports Bush's plan to send more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq as the only way to prevent that country from slipping further into chaos. "I cannot guarantee success, but I can guarantee failure if we don't adopt this new strategy," he said.

But he also voiced deep frustration over what the war has done, both to this country and to Iraq. "I think many things that have happened in the world that are unfavorable to the United States are the result of our weakness in the Iraqi conflict," he said.

Asked how the war may affect his candidacy, McCain shrugged off the question. "I can't think about it or worry about it," he said. "I have to do what I think is right."

On the night of Bush's speech, he told CNN's Larry King: "I would much rather lose an election than lose a war."

The risk now is that both could be lost.

As a forceful advocate for a policy that appears to fly in the face of the message voters sent in November, the politician who has long played for the center of the electorate now finds himself isolated on the right.

"The war is going badly, and he is now the leading public advocate of more of the same or even much more of the same," said Ron Klain, a Democratic strategist and chief of staff to then-Vice President Al Gore. "That's an odd place to be."

At a time when many Republicans are voicing opposition to Bush's plan, McCain is not budging. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain's closest friends in the Senate, explained the political stakes in the simplest terms. "If we're successful, he'll get the benefit," Graham said, referring to Iraq. "If we fail, he'll get the blame."

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