Rick Holmes: Neocon McCain
John McCain carried more Iraq baggage into the presidential campaign than any other candidate. This unpopular war has McCain's fingerprints all over it, and he realized going in that as Iraq went, so went his presidential hopes.
So McCain's campaign strategy has been to ignore 10 years of his involvement with U.S.-Iraq policy and focus the public's attention exclusively on a single tactical decision made in January 2007: the temporary boost in combat forces in Baghdad known as "the surge."
The surge is working, he says, proof enough that Americans can trust my judgment when it comes to war and peace.
McCain seems to have gotten away with it so far, for several reasons: reduced U.S. casualties in Iraq; the lack of a war critic among his leading opponents in the Republican primaries; the shallowness of the campaign; and the media's apparent boredom with the war.
The story of the mistakes that got us into Iraq is an old one by now, told in official reports like those of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee and in a lengthening shelf of non-fiction best-sellers: How the group of conservative intellectuals that came to be known as neoconservatives proposed a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s, with "regime change" in Iraq at the top of their wish list. How they teamed up with shady Iraqi exiles and defectors including Ahmad Chalabi to build support for aggressive U.S. action. How their immediate response to 9/11 was to go after Iraq, despite the lack of evidence implicating Saddam Hussein in al Qaeda's attacks. How they cherry-picked intelligence to build the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaeda - both of which have now been discredited. How they pushed for an invasion even as UN weapons inspectors and the international community begged for more time. How they invaded Iraq with illusions that American troops would be greeted as liberators, that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction, that no real post-invasion plan was required.
The story features a cast of characters who have now left the stage or are preparing to do so: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condi Rice. In the shorthand retelling, it's easy to miss the people who were cheering them on at every turn, including Sen. John McCain.
A recent New York Times review reminds us that McCain was something of a neocon before Bush even knew the term. He started consulting with neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in 1997. As his 2000 campaign took shape, McCain made a series of speeches calling for "rogue state rollback," a goal built on the assumption that terrorists must have a state sponsor to be successful.
In 1998, McCain sponsored the Iraqi Liberation Act, which endorsed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as the official policy of the United States government and directed nearly $100 million to Iraqi resistance groups. McCain took instruction from Chalabi, who convinced him Iraqis would rise up to overthrow Hussein and who provided "defectors" to stoke storylines about WMD and Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda.
Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld weren't the only ones whose first reaction to 9/11 was to take the war to Iraq. McCain preached "rogue state rollback" on all the news shows. He identified Iraq, Iran and Syria as possible targets on Sept. 12, the Times reports.
McCain was no maverick back then. He called Bush's leadership "magnificent" and declared his national security team the strongest "that has ever been assembled." On CNN, he told Larry King he would have been happy to have Rumsfeld and Colin Powell in his cabinet and that he, too, would have offered the vice-presidency to Cheney.
McCain pounded the Iraq connection throughout the Afghanistan war. He repeated the story about a 9/11 hijacker meeting with Iraqi agents in Prague even after the story had been discredited.
"A terrorist resides in Baghdad," McCain told a European security conference in February 2002. "A day of reckoning is approaching." He supported Congressional authorization of the war with great enthusiasm. With U.S. troops massed on Iraq's border in early 2003, he grew impatient, even as UN weapons inspectors were reporting they weren't finding the WMD, and urged the administration to wait no longer before giving the orders to evade.
Yes, McCain began to voice concerns six months later about post-invasion plans, inadequate troop levels and a growing insurgency. Yes, he became increasingly critical of Rumsfeld's handling of the war, though he refused to call for his resignation. But he has never acknowledged the strategic error of going after Iraq when the people who attacked us on 9/11 were a thousand miles away, hiding in another country.
In an e-mail response to questions posed this month by the Times, McCain said the 9/11 attacks "demonstrated the grave threat posed by a hostile regime, possessing weapons of mass destruction, and with reported ties to terrorists." The attacks were still a reminder, he said, of the importance of international action "to prevent outlaw states - like Iran today - from developing weapons of mass destruction."
But the 9/11 attacks demonstrated no such thing. There was no "hostile regime" behind the attacks, and no weapons of mass destruction were involved, unless you count commercial aircraft as WMD. What's worse, McCain is still using the flimsy rationale Bush used to justify the Iraq invasion - "outlaw states" developing WMD - to lay the groundwork for U.S. military action against another Persian Gulf state.
It would be nice if McCain showed he had learned something from 10 years as a close witness to disastrous foreign policies. It would be even better if the media showed voters exactly how much a part of the Bush-Cheney neocon gang the "maverick" McCain really is.
After all, as McCain said in his recent e-mail to the Times, "voters elect their leaders based on their experience and judgment - their ability to make hard calls, for instance, on matters of war and peace. It's important to get them right."
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.