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."
Two Democratic presidential candidates, former senator John Edwards of North Carolina and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, have cast McCain as the architect of the troop increase. MoveOn.org's political action committee plans television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire next week attacking McCain on the issue.
Would the Arizona senator describe the new policy as the embodiment of a McCain Doctrine for Iraq? "No, but I am willing to accept it as a McCain principle," he said Thursday night. "And that is, when I sign up, when I raise my hand and vote to go to war, that I want to see the completion of the mission."
McCain said the policy's defenders must work harder to change public opinion. "I admit that this is a challenge to us," he said. "But I can make the counterargument that withdrawal means defeat and chaos." Advocates for withdrawal, he said, must explain why that would not result in even greater chaos.
"What happens when Americans are no longer there?" he asked. "I think you could see some pretty horrific scenes on television sets in America."
It is a considerable irony, given their histories, that McCain's political future is now so closely tied to the president's ability to bring the Iraq war to a successful conclusion.
The two battled bitterly over the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. In 2004, they brokered a rapprochement that appeared politically beneficial to both: Bush gained the high-profile support of the Republican with the broadest appeal to independent voters, and McCain gained respect and admiration from conservative Republicans who had opposed his candidacy in 2000 and who are critical to his hopes for the nomination in 2008.
At the 2004 Republican National Convention, McCain offered lavish praise for Bush as a wartime president. Bush, he said, "has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time. . . . He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."
McCain said he has no regrets over the role he played in helping Bush win reelection, given his belief that the administration has so badly mismanaged the war. "Did I support the strategy? No, I didn't," he said. "But I certainly didn't see his opponent, who was advocating withdrawal, as advocating any kind of viable proposal," he added, referring to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
His differences with the administration, he said, were well known as far back as 2004 -- his lack of confidence in then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his belief even then that the administration needed to send more troops to Iraq. "Every hearing, every opportunity that I had -- my staff has compiled it already a hundred times where I said, 'This is not going right. You've got to get more people on the ground here,' " he said.
McCain has long tried to balance his advocacy for the mission in Iraq with his criticism of the administration, always putting some distance between himself and the White House. He did the same in the days before Bush's prime-time speech Wednesday night. "There are two keys to any surge of U.S. troops," he said at a forum at the American Enterprise Institute. "To be of value, the surge must be substantial and it must be sustained."
Does the new policy meet those tests? McCain offers an equivocal answer. He said he has been assured by Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the president's choice to take over command in Iraq, that 20,000 additional troops should be enough, but that if they are not, Petraeus can ask Bush for more.
"He tells me, 'I think I can do it with this number,' " McCain said. "So I'm supposed to be a Monday-morning quarterback? I'm not going over there and command. I'm only sitting here trying to figure out the best way we can win this conflict."
His advisers dismiss suggestions that McCain has shrewdly left himself room to argue that Bush's plan for more troops was not substantial or sustained enough to ensure success. They, like the possible candidate, see the perils of his position -- but potential benefits as well.
"At the core of the issue is who he is, and that's what generates his popularity," said Rick Davis, one of McCain's top political advisers. "It's that he puts principle ahead of politics, that he tells it like he sees it regardless of the political ramifications."
McCain's character was shaped by the previous great conflict that divided America -- the Vietnam War -- and is being tested by the current conflict, which has done the same. A prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain is now a hostage of a different sort -- his political future tied in part to the president, the Pentagon and an Iraqi government in which he has limited confidence.
McCain, who has helped broker many deals between Republicans and Democrats over the years, sees no opportunity to do so on Iraq. He opposed the only bipartisan plan on the table -- the report of the Iraq Study Group, which called for the withdrawal of most combat forces by early next year -- and finds himself at odds with most Democratic friends (one exception being Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, reelected as an independent) and longtime Republican allies such as Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
"We've either got to do what's necessary, in my considered view, that can lead to success in Iraq, or withdrawal, which in my view is going to lead to catastrophic consequences," he said. "I don't know where you find a middle ground there."