Thursday, April 12, 2007

# Posted 10:55 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG ASKS JOHN McCAIN A QUESTION. (LITERALLY.) After his address Wednesday at the Virginia Military Institute, John McCain did a second conference call for bloggers. I got to ask a question and I tried to make it reasonably tough.

For a detailed and precise summary of the bloggers' questions and the Senator's answers, visit Bull Dog Pundit. For additional commentary, check out Glenn Reynolds' compilation of posts about the call.

Here's how Bull Dog Pundit summarized my question:
Next was Dave Adesnick [sic] from Oxblog[.] Asks about Washington Post headline about McCain’s “staking candidacy” on Iraq. If things are grim in Iraq at the end of 2007, does that mean things are “Grim” for a McCain presidency[?]

McCain makes fun of those quoted anonymously [who] are “close to him”. Doesn’t care what effect Iraq stance has on his political ambitions. To do otherwise is a “great betrayal” of the troops there, and who have been there.
That captures the basics, although I think the details are worth recounting. First off, I began by telling the Senator that I am a very strong supporter of his. I said it because it's true, and because I wanted to establish pre-emptively that my implied criticism should be taken as constructive.

I told Sen. McCain I wanted to ask him about a front-page story in Saturday's Post entitled "McCain to Stake Bid on Need to Win in Iraq". Then I read the following sentence from the story:
It is a gamble at a critical time for the former front-runner for the Republican nomination, the political equivalent of a "double-down" in blackjack, as one person close to the campaign put it.
It certainly is a gamble, since the surge may fail, as McCain himself has observed. Thus, if the situation in Iraq is grim in late 2007, will the situation also be grim for McCain's candidacy?

What I probably should have stated more clearly was that I wanted to know if McCain had made a strategic decision to focus his campaign more on Iraq in a way that he hadn't before. That was what the article in Saturday's Post clearly implied. Furthermore, the article suggested that McCain's spech at VMI would provide of evidence of this shift. But it didn't. It was primarily a restatement of his principles along with commentary on the latest developments in Iraq and on the Hill.

I was hoping the article was wrong because I don't see how it makes sense to double down on the success of something as uncertain as the surge. I would argue that McCain is the strongest candidate on every aspect of national security and US foreign policy. Thus, I don't want him knocked out of the race just because things go worse in Iraq.

Strategically, I think McCain needs to lay out how he would approach the situation in Iraq if the surge does fail. Right now he is on the horns of a dilemma. He says that we cannot afford to lose in Iraq. But if the surge goes poorly and 85% of Americans want to withdraw, will McCain still be committed to an increasingly hopeless quest for victory? At what point must a sincere commitment to principle give way to the demands of an overwhelming majority of the electorate?

McCain's answer to my question was honest, perhaps recklessly so. First, he said we shouldn't pay attention to anything attributed to anonymous individuals "close to his campaign". The bottom line is that he is going to do what he believes is right, regardless of whether it is the best thing for his candidacy.

Coming from most other politicians, I would probably dismiss that kind of statement out of hand. Ryan Sager suggests that even McCain could not have been entirely sincere. But my concern is actually that McCain was being entirely sincere.

If the surge fails, demands for a full and immediate withdrawal will intensify dramatically. But if victory is impossible and the costs of defeat are unbearable, then the best course for the United States will be to keep a smaller force in Iraq to protect its most vital interests, such as preventing the establishment of an Al Qaeda safe haven.

If I were one of McCain's advisers, I'd be telling him to think about that problem now, even if he focuses his public statements on the surge. If McCain doesn't develop a clear position now and the surge does fail, he will be forced to take an ad hoc position on the most important issue of the day. That is dangerous. It will provide the critics with a chance to label him as an opportunist or even a flip-flopper.

McCain's greatest strength is his reputation for being principled and honest. But being principled and honest does not demand a total rejection of political strategizing. You just have to be honest about that, too.


(3) opinions -- Add your opinion

'Strategically, I think McCain needs to lay out how he would approach the situation in Iraq if the surge does fail.'

So he needs to lay out how he would approach the situation in Iraq.
It would be ironic if McCain should get the GOP nomination and then lose the election because of McCain-Feingold, but that is what he deserves for getting taken into camp on that one. (Actually, M-F will prevent his getting the nomination). No, he cannot say now what he would do if the surge should fail. That would be defeatism, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. He can't say than any more than George W. Bush can.
That would be defeatism, giving aid and comfort to the enemy

Actually, that would be 'straight talk,' supposedly McCain's trademark. Instead, we get this refusal to talk about the elephant in the room, or if that figure of speech doesn't suit you, this ostrich sticking its neck in the sand.

The Iraq War already is a failure. Of course it shouldn't have been fought in the first place, but the prosecution of the war couldn't have been worse. And now by stretching it out a few more years we get this desperate attempt to put the failure on someone else's calendar. Even Republicans should reject that.

McCain may be staking his candidacy on Iraq, but the New Hampshire primary is set for January 22, 2008. The surge will have come and gone by then, and so unless pigs can fly, McCain will be sorry for what he's wished for.
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