A Tortuous Debate

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006; 10:38 AM

John McCain is getting roughed up by the conservative punditocracy.

Never mind that he is a former POW who is arguing with a president of his own party because he feels deeply about the issue of torture. In some circles, he is being denigrated, and his presidential chances are being downgraded, for taking this stand.

Leaving aside whether the Arizona senator is right or wrong, he is not stupid. He surely knows that taking on President Bush on this sensitive national security issue, at a time when he's trying to position himself as Bush's natural heir for 2008, is a risky maneuver. Perhaps, then, it is for McCain a matter of conscience, not politics.

It's understandable, of course, why many on the right are suspicious of McCain. From tax cuts to campaign finance to criticizing the Christian right, he has often thrived in the maverick's role and basked in the resulting MSM attention. But on foreign policy, and especially Iraq, McCain has been one of Bush's most stalwart supporters.

Still, his conservative critics seem to take special glee in slamming him. The Manchester Union Leader opposed McCain in the 2000 GOP primary, which he won, and knocked him on the torture issue when he visited the Granite State over the weekend.

Are there lots of rank-and-file conservatives, out beyond the chattering classes, who admire McCain for standing on principle even if they disagree with him? I don't know, although it's noteworthy that Colin Powell, Lindsey Graham, John Warner and other Republicans are standing with McCain in this fight. I have little doubt that both sides will find a way to finesse their differences before long.

National Review Editor Rich Lowry pulls no punches:

"For people supposedly occupying the moral high ground, John McCain and his band of Republican rebels defying President Bush on the issue of interrogation have a strange attachment to confused argumentation.

"They maintain that the United States can't define more precisely its obligations for the treatment of unlawful combatants under the vague language of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to allow the tough interrogations of terrorists, as Bush proposes, lest our troops in turn be tortured upon capture. McCain warns that such a definitional exercise risks 'the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country.' What pleasant, alternate reality does the Arizona Republican inhabit?"

After detailing the horrors inflicted on American soldiers, Lowry says: "This is savagery immune to a domestic legal debate in the U.S. Maybe McCain and Co. think that the U.S. debate at least will influence our more reasonable adversaries. But since when have we fought a regime -- Saddam's Iraq, Milosevic's Serbia, North Vietnam, North Korea, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany -- that is not barbarously committed to repression and murder?"

The editorialists at the Wall Street Journal are in the sweeping-pronouncement mode:

"If Senators John McCain, John Warner, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins get their way, aggressive interrogation as an antiterror intelligence tool will effectively end.

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