The Sunday Take

Sunday Take: McCain Keeps Pressure on Obama

By Dan Balz
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sen. John McCain says the coverage of his exchange with President Obama at a White House meeting last week has been vastly overblown. "There was no sharp exchange whatsoever," he said in a telephone interview. "To say that there was anything to it -- it's so insulting and so outrageous."

It was just a year ago when Obama and McCain (R-Ariz.) were trading sharp words, by long distance on the campaign trail and face to face in three presidential debates. Obama won those rounds and the presidency. McCain now describes their relationship as "respectful," but respectful as part of "the loyal opposition."

They came together to kill the F-22 fighter jet project. They have parted ways on health care and the stimulus package. They are now sparring over Afghanistan. The issue is whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to the country, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, has proposed.

Obama has not tipped his hand, though talk of seeking a new strategy suggests he is not yet ready to embrace such a sizable troop increase. McCain has emerged as the most visible advocate for more troops, just as he was when then-President George W. Bush was considering a troop "surge" in Iraq almost three years ago.

That history colors the current debate and the current Obama-McCain relationship. That is why every word between them is examined for any hint of discord or disagreement, and why their brief exchange at last week's White House meeting between the president and about 30 members of Congress drew the attention it did.

"I said I don't think we should have a leisurely process," McCain recalled. The president did not respond immediately, but when he was wrapping up the meeting, he came back to what McCain had said. According to several people in the room, Obama said, "John, this won't be leisurely. No one feels more urgency about getting this right."

McCain described the exchange as respectful, not contentious. Others at the meeting, from Congress and the White House, endorse that description. "I didn't see any particular flash of temper," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. But he added: "There obviously is a difference of opinion."

Obama and McCain have long been divided on U.S. war strategy. Obama argued that the war in Iraq should never have been fought; McCain was a strong advocate of the invasion. Obama opposed Bush's surge when McCain supported it. When, by fall 2008, the surge had helped reduce the violence, McCain pressed Obama to admit he had been mistaken. Obama said the surge had helped but would not say he was wrong.

Now they are fencing again, over a decision fateful to Obama's presidency. McCain is publicly prodding his former rival not to back away from the strategy announced in March or disregard the advice from the military commanders the president installed. Obama may wonder whether a proposal for 40,000 more troops would be the last such request.

Of Obama's leadership in the meetings with members of Congress, McCain said: "He makes it very clear he is the president. He seeks advice and counsel but [makes clear] that the decisions rest with him." McCain respects that. But he added: "Where I disagree with him is that I think he is considering all options with equal weight, and I don't think that should be the case."

Obama is exploring strategies that could result in sending fewer additional troops. McCain thinks that is a mistake. "You can't go back to the Rumsfeld-Casey kind of strategy," he said, referring to the leadership and decisions that turned the post-invasion years in Iraq into a debacle. "It's doomed to failure. I would prefer to get out and cope with the outcome."

Why is he so attached to the number 40,000 as the right answer in Afghanistan? "It is the considered opinion of those who are in position to know best, and my repeated visits to the region and information and briefings about the situation on the ground," he said. "I was there right after the fall of Kabul. I continue to be immersed."

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