By David S. Broder
Thursday, March 20, 2008
These are salad days for John McCain, touring world capitals with his buddies Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, meeting foreign leaders and returning to Washington with his nomination secure and polls confirming that he is well positioned to challenge either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
But I have a hunch that the senator from Arizona may look back on his stopover in Baghdad on Sunday and Monday as a missed opportunity.
It is obvious that the Democrats are planning to run against McCain by linking him as tightly as possible with President Bush, the instigator of the Iraq war and the captain of a seriously shaky economy.
As a member of the minority party in a largely dysfunctional Senate, there is little McCain can do to rescue the economy. But the Baghdad visit offered him a chance to deal with the other big barrier to his election -- his close identification with Bush's policies in a war now into its sixth wearying year.
In the public mind, McCain is closely bound to Bush's most consequential gamble, because he has been a vocal and consistent supporter of the decision to invade Iraq and because he has been perhaps the most outspoken defender of the troop surge that has, thank goodness, reduced U.S. casualties and brought stability to some parts of the country.
But as much as McCain is linked to Bush on Iraq, he is even more closely tied to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander who devised and executed the counterinsurgency strategy that McCain was calling for long before Bush endorsed it.
When I read Petraeus's comments to The Post, just days before McCain landed in Baghdad, I thought, "What an opening he has created for McCain." Cameron W. Barr, who interviewed the general, quoted Petraeus as saying that "no one" on either the Iraqi or U.S. side "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation" or the provision of basic services.
Petraeus told Barr that he and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker had "repeatedly noted that it's crucial that the Iraqis exploit the opportunities that we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to provide them."
That clearly opened the door for McCain, as a prospective president, to signal to the government of Nouri al-Maliki that his patience with the political impasse is not inexhaustible.
That impasse has blocked the needed oil law and inexcusably delayed, until yesterday, setting a deadline for provincial elections that could lead to a federal system -- empowering Sunnis and Kurds.
Bush and Maliki have both called those steps vital benchmarks, but Bush has refused to threaten any consequences for Iraqi obduracy. If McCain had told Maliki that he cannot continue to dither, he could have accomplished two important goals.
Because Clinton and Obama have publicly committed to a quick start in reducing U.S. combat forces in Iraq if either becomes president, a warning shot from McCain -- even without a timetable -- would put the Iraqis on notice that the next president would not be as accommodating as Bush.
And politically, it would send a dramatic message that McCain is not in lock step with Bush, while once again aligning him with Petraeus.
So far as I can judge from the few public statements McCain uttered while in Baghdad, the senator said no such thing.
When CNN's John King asked him during his visit to comment on Petraeus's "frustration with the pace of political progress," McCain gave a bland response.
"Well," he began, "General Petraeus has actually said he is pleased with some of the progress. All of us are frustrated with some of the progress they haven't made, particularly provincial elections. That needs to happen."
Two days later, it happened.
McCain went on to say, "So, they need to pass the oil revenue-sharing -- the hydrocarbon law. They need to have a better-functioning government in many ways. They have got too many ministries. They have got too many bureaucracies."
McCain concluded with, "I will be glad to stake my campaign on the fact that this has succeeded and the American people appreciate it."
For a man with a reputation for "straight talk," that sounds suspiciously like pulling his punches. My sense is that voters would be more willing to give McCain the open-ended commitment he desires in Iraq if they thought the Iraqis were fulfilling their part of the bargain. McCain had a chance to deliver that message publicly in Baghdad, and, as far I can see, he missed it.
Instead, he twice mistakenly said that Iran was aiding the Sunni-based al-Qaeda in Iraq, not the Shiite militants -- until corrected by Lieberman, thus denting his claim to expertise in the region.