McCain Digs a Deeper Hole

How Iraq ruined the senator's presidential hopes


John McCain is an indomitable patriot who will forever be remembered for his stoic endurance of captivity and torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. But lately, he has gone to great lengths to prove that it's possible to be both a hero and a fool.

He got more attention than he wanted for saying his visit to a Baghdad market was proof the administration's "surge" strategy is working—downplaying the fact that he needed an escort of 100 American soldiers, plus attack helicopters, just to survive the trip. Afterward, he admitted misspeaking. But the episode was hardly the first evidence that when it comes to Iraq, McCain has an unerring instinct for being wrong.

Before the war began, he claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and would never allow international inspectors back in his country, both of which turned out to be false. McCain scoffed at those who warned of the dangers of invading, saying, "I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time." In December 2005, despite more than 2,000 American dead, he was still upbeat: "Overall, I think a year from now, we will have a fair amount of progress if we stay the course."

He got away with gaffes like those, because the president and his subordinates were so busy making worse ones. But the Baghdad episode risked turning him into a laughingstock, partly because McCain's account was devastatingly refuted by events: The next day, 21 Iraqis who worked in the market were abducted and murdered.

So last week, the Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate made a speech at the Virginia Military Institute in the hope of salvaging his reputation for sober realism. After his market visit, the question was: Why should anyone ever listen to McCain again on this subject? After his speech, the answer is clear: No reason at all.

While stressing the difficulty of achieving success in Iraq, he assured the VMI cadets he sees definite "glimmers of progress"—such as being able to drive into Baghdad from the airport, instead of going by helicopter. But that's neither surprising nor proof of success. Once the most hazardous highway on Earth, the airport road was finally brought under control more than a year and a half ago. Security there didn't translate into security elsewhere before. What makes him think it will now?

The other glimmers of progress are exceedingly dim. It's true that violence is down in the capital. Tripling the number of U.S. combat troops on the ground was bound to deter some insurgents, or at least move them to other places.

But the Pentagon says that in March, the number of casualties nationwide, including civilians, Iraqi security forces and the American military, rose by 10 percent in Iraq as a whole. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that "the humanitarian situation is steadily worsening."

If things are going so well, why can't the administration find a military man to take the job of overseeing the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan? One of those who turned it down, retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan, told The Washington Post, "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going."

McCain couldn't really offer hope for success. So he spent most of his speech warning of the alleged dangers of failure—such as giving al Qaeda a safe haven like it had in Afghanistan and unleashing a Rwanda-like genocide. In fact, neither outcome is remotely plausible.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda had crucial help from a powerful neighbor, Pakistan. But Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are sworn enemies of al Qaeda. So is Iraq's own Shiite majority. The mass slaughter in Rwanda required helpless victims—and the warring groups in Iraq, as you may have noticed, have the weapons to defend themselves.

McCain, who once underestimated the dangers of going into Iraq, now exaggerates the dangers of leaving. What he doesn't acknowledge is that the costs of staying are likely to be a futile investment.

On Thursday, the optimists got a dose of reality when a bomb went off inside the Parliament building, in the heart of the Green Zone, the most heavily fortified place in Iraq. Earlier, appearing on CBS' "60 Minutes," McCain was asked, "If the surge strategy fails, what's next?" His answer: "That's what I don't know."


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