Does the political world realize just how big a hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) really is?
Lost in the coverage of the former Vietnam prisoner of war’s campaign against torture and inhumane treatment of detainees in the war on terror is a true appreciation of McCain’s full-tilt, nothing-less-than-victory support of the war in Iraq.
I interviewed McCain recently for a story in The New Republic magazine, and he spoke about the war in a way that was both tougher and more understanding than George W. Bush himself.
There are a lot of reasons why we should see the fight through to the finish, McCain believes. But perhaps the most pressing reason is also the simplest. “We cannot afford to lose,” he told me. “Just read Zarqawi. We lose it, and they’re coming after us.”
Get-out-fast proposals like the one from Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) baffle McCain. The idea of removing U.S. troops from Iraq, only to station them nearby, seems pointless. “To do what?” McCain asks. “I know of no military strategist who would tell you that that kind of arrangement would work.”
I asked McCain about Murtha himself. “Jack’s a lovable guy,” McCain told me. “But he’s never been a big thinker; he’s an appropriator.”
But why has Murtha decided to come forward now? “As we get older, we get more sentimental,” McCain says, “and Jack has been very, very affected by the funerals and the families. But you cannot let that affect the way you decide policy.”
That’s a statement George W. Bush simply could not make.
It could only come from a veteran like McCain who both knows the cost of war and who — after a lot of thought — has made the decision that it’s worth paying.
McCain isn’t reluctant to point out American mistakes in Iraq. But when he does, he doesn’t put it all on Bush. Listen to him talk about those missteps and he says “we,” not “he.”
“We never should have said ‘Mission Accomplished,’” McCain told me. “We never should have said ‘a few dead-enders.’ We never should have said ‘last throes.’ Part of it is our own making, by creating expectations which obviously didn’t come to fruition.”
And the president should still, in McCain’s view, get rid of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But in spite of all that, McCain believes that the U.S., and the cause of Iraqi independence, are moving forward in Iraq, a little bit at a time.
“I think the situation on the ground is going to improve,” he says. “I do think that progress is being made in a lot of Iraq. Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course. If I thought we weren’t making progress, I’d be despondent.”
What has been difficult for McCain — and many other administration supporters — to figure out is why the Bush administration hasn’t been more aggressive and more vocal in its defense of the war. For months, the president has made occasional statements on the subject while Democrats kept up a daily barrage of “Bush lied and people died.”
A lot of charges went unanswered for a long time. Why? “I’ve tried to figure it out,” McCain told me. “I don’t know the answer, and I don’t want to be critical. But it seems to me it’s pretty obvious there were distractions. There’s a little bit of fatigue that hits every administration in the second term.”
And then: “Maybe there wasn’t an appreciation for the ferocity of the Democrats. I’ve never seen such ferocity, such bitterness and anger. It’s just phenomenal.”
And it’s likely to get uglier, because the opposition party sees a political advantage in continuing the fight. “You and I know the Democrats would not be nearly as active as they are if they weren’t looking at polling data,” McCain says.
Right now, beside the president himself, there is no other Republican in Washington who speaks about the war as passionately and with such determination as McCain. And that makes him — again after the president himself — arguably the most important hawk in the country.
Just look at the uproar caused by Murtha. The press immediately portrayed Murtha as a leading hawk on the war (even though he had already expressed great doubts about the fight) and suggested that Murtha’s announcement meant that hard-core supporters of the war were changing their minds on Iraq.
Now imagine if John McCain were to do something similar. A McCain turn against the war would have an immediate, explosive and enormously damaging effect on the public’s — and the government’s — resolve to keep going.
Not gonna happen, says McCain: “It will be a cold day in Gila Bend, my friend.”
He sounds like he believes it. And by the way, the average summer temperature in Gila Bend, Arizona, is 109 degrees.
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