By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Sen. John McCain will step off a plane in Iraq this weekend to see firsthand the effects of the troop increase that he has championed and that his presidential ambitions are tied to, at the outset of a week-long series of private meetings with Middle Eastern and European leaders that will be as much an overseas audition as it is political theater aimed at voters in the United States.
In Baghdad, McCain returns to the city that was in part responsible for his presidential campaign's early collapse and its eventual recovery. McCain said in New Hampshire last week that he will listen to Iraq's leaders and to America's generals to guide his policies, but his visit amplifies the message he repeats daily on the trail: "We are succeeding in Iraq," he says. "The surge and the strategy are succeeding." McCain said last month that if he cannot convince Americans that the war is succeeding, "Then I lose."
McCain is a familiar figure overseas, but the heads of state in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, France and Britain will take fresh measure of the man who may be president and try to assess how similar his policies will be to those of President Bush.
To the world, the Republican from Arizona promises action on global warming and a softer tone on torture -- positions that are likely to reassure many Europeans who have grown weary of Bush administration policy on those issues. But as a candidate, McCain has been, if anything, more bellicose than Bush on North Korea and Iran. And McCain's unwavering support for the Iraq war is well known across the continent.
"The people he's going to meet with are going to try to find out from him what he would do as president," said Jim Steinberg, the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and a former deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. "He's not just a senator. He's the presumptive nominee."
In Europe, especially, the veteran military officer turned politician may face tough questions about his aggressive rhetoric toward some of the world's nations.
"If people here and in the Middle East were reassured that McCain isn't sort of itching for another war, that would be an important step," said Walter Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "When someone is one of the two finalists to be president of the United States, everybody wants to take a closer look."
They will get their chance during the seven-day, taxpayer-funded trip, which includes Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), two of McCain's closest colleagues. McCain is leading the delegation in his role as a senior U.S. senator on a fact-finding mission, not as a candidate for president. He has not brought any political aides and has vowed not to discuss the campaign. McCain plans to hold a fundraiser in London on Thursday, and costs associated with it will be paid for by the campaign, a spokeswoman said.
His strategists believe that the image of McCain standing shoulder-to-shoulder with world leaders in world capitals will nonetheless crystallize one of the campaign's most important themes: that McCain alone has the experience and foreign policy savvy to be president. Republicans hope to highlight a "stature gap" between McCain and his Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
"He will not talk about the presidential race. But to the degree that there are pictures of John McCain standing on the world stage next to leaders, he will wear that well," one GOP strategist said. "Does that resonate well with people back home? Sure it does."
McCain's trip abroad was originally scheduled for just after the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5. But he postponed it as he made a final push to dispatch former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and secure the Republican nomination. That task now completed, and with Democrats still squabbling, McCain told his advisers that he intended to take the congressional trip.
The trip begins in Iraq, but for security reasons, the senator's office is not providing details about his visit to the war-torn country. McCain said the senators will meet with U.S. military officials and Iraqi leaders in an attempt to assess the success of the troop buildup for themselves.
McCain's support for the surge was a mixed blessing during his presidential campaign. In early 2007, the continued violence in Iraq made his support for the policy seem naive. During his last visit to the country nearly a year ago, McCain was mocked for declaring an Iraqi marketplace safe while touring it under heavy military guard.
More recently, though, the apparent military success of the buildup has boosted his candidacy. His decision to launch a "no surrender" tour last summer made him look prescient, and he often pummels Obama and Clinton for their opposition to a strategy that now appears to be making Iraq safer.
"We cannot do as Senator Obama and Senator Clinton want to do: set a date for withdrawal," McCain said at a town-hall meeting last Wednesday in Exeter, N.H.
In the Democratic race, Obama and Clinton have each touted their ability to command the world's largest superpower in a time of crisis. Clinton's television ad, which featured a phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m., put this issue in stark relief.
McCain advisers said the trip abroad should help to convince people that he ought to be the one answering the phone.
"He's ready to be president, not just at 3 a.m., but at any a.m. or p.m., 24 hours a day," Lieberman told the Exeter crowd.
In Jerusalem, McCain is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. In London, he will sit down with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And in Paris, he will meet newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy.
At Wednesday's town-hall meeting, he once again referred to Sarkozy as the pro-American leader of France, "proving that, if you live long enough, anything is possible." A former prisoner of war in Vietnam and a decorated war hero, McCain has spent much of his Senate career focused on military and foreign policy as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.
To his foreign hosts this week, McCain is at once a known quantity and a bit of a mystery.
"He has had a lot of interaction with foreign leaders," said John R. Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations under Bush. "They know he's a serious person. They know he knows his stuff. This trip is an opportunity for him more to recharge some old connections."
But newspaper articles in Paris, London and Jerusalem raise questions about which McCain would become president: the moderate one who supports free trade and efforts to fight global warming; or the more conservative one, who vows never to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons.
The long Republican primary battle did little to clear up the question. During debates, he often appeared to be the voice of caution -- pledging to shut down the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has become a symbol of American bullying in much of the world. Other times, he appeared to relish the use of force, as when he sang "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys song, "Barbara Ann."
"I fear that if McCain wins, policy, in particular on Iraq or Iran, won't change considerably," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on the BBC Feb. 6. "On the other side, it will change."