Out on a Limb: Will McCain be last man standing on Iraq?

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Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks during a rally as part of his “No Surrender” tour Thursday at the Veterans of Foreign War Post 1772 in Rochester.
AP photo
John McCain (R)
Senator, AZ
Born: 08/29/1936
Birthplace: Panama Canal Zone
Home: Phoenix, AZ
Religion: Episcopalian
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You only have to spend a few minutes with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain to sense his passion about doing the right thing in Iraq. In Portsmouth on Thursday when I asked McCain how he plans to finance continued military operations against the radical Islamic extremists around the world, he talked about making the Bush tax cuts permanent, railed against pork-barrel spending, and then moved right into campaign speak: The "surge is working" and if we don't take care of business now, the sacrifice of "blood and treasure" will be even greater tomorrow.

McCain's "No Surrender" tour is an attempt to recast the Iraq war debate in the starkest terms possible. McCain and the Republican voters he engages believe if we retreat now from Iraq no matter how great the quagmire, the jihadists will follow us home. When he spoke later during the equivalent of a drive-through campaign stop at a VFW post out in the wilderness of East Rochester, the Manicean rhetoric was in full display: We need to stop Congress from choosing "to lose" and that the troops in Iraq are begging the American public to "let us win." As if almost five years of strategic blunders, incompetence and one failed opportunity after another could be wiped away by magic — or the genius of Gen. David Petraeus whom McCain believes can and will save the day.

There was no middle ground to be found. Orson Swindle, a Virginian and former Marine who was a POW cell mate of McCain's in Vietnam, implored the small and mostly subdued gathering not to let Iraq become another Vietnam. "We sacrificed a great deal and had the rug pulled out from us." Hints of looming political and public betrayal were dropped like so many emotional mines.

McCain said "we are at a seminal time in the history of the country."

McCain supporter James Woolsey Jr., the former CIA director and one of the neoconservatives who pushed hard for the Iraq war, upped the historical ante. Woolsey said we are seeing a repeat of May 1940, and that McCain is the American version of Winston Churchill, the British World War II leader and hero — and an icon often trotted out like a museum piece to make a political point. Like Churchill, McCain is a "maverick, a warrior leader," Woolsey gushed.

Greg Lynch, a Vietnam War veteran and head of the VFW post in Kingston, was in sync with the spirit of the event. "We have to win. We can't give up," said Lynch, a longtime McCain supporter.

He added, "We're there to promote democracy."

When I asked Lynch if he were concerned that American troops are caught up in a messy civil war, he paused, stating, "It's a difficult situation, obviously."

According to my notes, not once did McCain utter the word diplomacy. He talked about the success of the surge, but gave it little or no context: For example, to what end? Is an honorable end for "the right reasons," as McCain has said on numerous occasions, a strategy?

There's no mention of the junior Army officers resigning in record numbers or the highest recorded rate of suicides in the Army. There's no mention of the LA Times poll in August that said morale is considered low among 42 percent of serving military personnel in Iraq. Or that a recent BBC poll reported that 70 percent of Iraqis said the surge hadn't left them any safer. Or press reports that the Pentagon is drawing up plans to withdraw as many as two-thirds of the troops from Iraq rapidly — the main reason being is that the battleground forces have been stretched to the breaking point.

When I talked recently with Jon Soltz, the chairman and co-founder of the national veterans group votevets.org, he dismissed reports of the surge as a success as fantasy. The Iraq war veteran told me that "personally, Sen. McCain is a hero of mine and we honor his service," but that he is ignoring the facts on the ground, not only in Iraq but in Washington.

"(The troops) are dying in Iraq because of domestic politics," Soltz said. The surge was created to allow President Bush to "punt the football" to the next administration while giving him and the Republicans the opportunity to accuse the next president, the one left to clean up the mess, of being "complicit in retreat."

Meanwhile, the real complicity, Soltz explained, is the country isn't any safer because of the war. The war in Iraq allowed the terrorists we should be concerned about the opportunity to regroup and attack where Americans can be killed — in Iraq.

One GOP activist who has yet to hook up with a campaign told me "McCain has found his stride with the war, but he's at the mercy of Bush."

If that theory plays out, it can't be good for any Republican or American for that matter. Bush is in another one of his full-fledged delusional phases: bragging to a foreign leader about "kicking ass" in Iraq while supplying the country with a new, surrealistic metric for Iraq, a "return on success." Wonder what the eloquent Churchill would think about this guaranteed comedic punch line as a war strategy?

McCain talked about this coming week's "great debate on the floor of the Senate" regarding Iraq. What will be just as interesting is how the Iraq war debate plays out in the next three months here in New Hampshire. On that issue, the two parties will offer a concrete definition of the term parallel universes.

Michael McCord is a political columnist and opinion page editor for Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald. Readers can e-mail him at mccord@seacoastonline.com.