It’s John McCain’s war now. Next week, President Bush will announce a troop surge of between 20,000 and 40,000 troops, according to those who have been briefed on outlines of the plan. Though the president will give the speech, McCain is the politician whose career most depends on it. The senator has been advocating more troops since August of 2003. Recently he has advocated for a surge in private conversations with the president and at greater length with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who is heading up the administration’s policy review.
In the debate that will follow the president’s announcement, McCain will blanket the news outlets making the case for the troop hike. He is also making a deeper personal commitment. The program he’s advocating will almost certainly send his 18-year-old son, a marine, into Iraq. (When McCain was a POW during the Vietnam War, his own father, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, ordered increased bombing raids on Hanoi despite the fact they would endanger his son who was imprisoned there.)
McCain has long benefited from being a supporter of the war but a critic of the tactics. Now they are his tactics, and his political neck is on the line. With his presidential campaign all but announced, McCain is embracing an unpopular strategy that will make an already unpopular war longer and bloodier. The surge plan will take 18 months if everything goes right, say planners. “Are McCain’s people up late at night thinking about this?” asks one McCain person. “Sure, but not in the sense that we’re busy thinking of other things he can do. This is what he thinks we should do.”
But just because the McCain team isn’t thinking about how McCain should change his position for political reasons, that doesn’t mean they aren’t pondering how to manage the political fallout. Here’s what they think might save him if the surge fails:
1. Blame will fall on the Bush team: McCain has been the president’s staunch Iraq ally, but he is also the first to note that the war has been badly mishandled. At an American Enterprise Institute discussion on Friday, McCain said that “there have been many, many mistakes since 2003 that will not be easily reversed,” in the prosecution of the war. He told the audience that everyone in America should read Fiasco, the book that details those many failures. Pointing out that the job was botched is both an act of truth-telling and an act of political defense. If the surge doesn’t work, he will be able to say the Iraq war has been so mismanaged that it was too far gone for the McCain-backed last-ditch attempt.
2. Primary voters will support himanyway: Republican voters are devoted to the military. The troop surge has been promoted by McCain and its architects as a strategy that finally gives the military the tools it needs to meet the challenges it faces. In their eyes, McCain is making a last brave attempt to save a botched mission. So, success or failure, McCain gains with conservative voters. Plus, which of McCain’s GOP challengers will risk criticizing him? They lack standing on the issues, can’t compete with his military record, and have no children actively engaged in the fight.
3. His candor inoculates him: McCain is pushing the troop increase with his famous blunt talk. He promises it will cause more casualties and take a long time. The carnage will increase before it decreases, and in the end it may not work. Straight talk has worked for him politically in the past. Voters have always given him credit for being straight with them. But will they be able to stomach this much truth?