Friday, December 22, 2006

Senator Backbone

Two of the most important qualities necessary for a run to the Oval Office are decisiveness and strength of character. In recent weeks, John McCain has proven that he has more stock in these traits than most any public official today.

As American fortunes in the battle of Iraq have deteriorated, the senator has forcefully elevated the policy debate by fearlessly offering unpopular advice on how to turn the tide toward victory. In fact, McCain is several steps ahead of nearly everyone on the subject of this war. At his recent news conference, President George W. Bush said the U.S. should expand the size of its armed forces, especially the Army and Marine Corps. McCain has been saying this for years. Bush and his high command are now mulling a possible troop-force surge in Iraq; McCain has been advocating this for quite some time.

Of course, each of these positions is out of favor. But that’s not silencing McCain: “I understand the polls show only 18 percent of the American people support my position. But I have to do what’s right, what I believe is right, and what my experience and knowledge and background tells me is the right thing to do in order to save this situation in Iraq . . . In war, my dear friends, there is no such compromise. You either win or you lose.”

In the midst of the latest doubt, pessimism, and quibbling over our direction in Iraq, here is John McCain digging his heels in the sand. He is fighting the defeatist tide, and though it might endanger his presidential bid, he is entirely comfortable with his posture. I believe this is called courage. Principle. Leadership. It’s what has long described this highly decorated former Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war.

More kudos go to McCain for blasting the defeatist recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said “There’s only one thing worse than an overstressed Army and Marine Corps, and that’s a defeated Army and Marine Corps. I believe this is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner than later in Iraq.”

McCain specifically ridiculed the Baker-Hamilton suggestion that American combat troops withdraw from Iraq while more advisors and trainers embed with Iraqi forces. He argued that this would “put at risk a large number of American advisors” who would be subject to hostage-taking and the attacks of rogue militias or terrorists.

McCain also mocked the commission’s idea of seeking peace talks with Iran and Syria, saying “I don’t believe that a peace conference with people who are dedicated to your extinction has much short-term gain.”

The recent McCain narrative is especially important. First, in the Oval Office, the Arizonan privately urged the president to add more troops and reject the Baker-Hamilton withdrawal approach. Then, in Baghdad, McCain pleaded the same case to American generals. Along the way, he has held several news conferences, deftly using the public square to influence the outcome of events.

No public figure today could do all this with as much influence and credibility as Sen. John McCain. If in fact President Bush goes forward with a troop surge -- one that is designed to protect the fledgling Iraqi democracy and repel our enemies in the Middle East -- McCain’s steadfastness and bravery will have sealed that outcome.

Interestingly, new defense secretary Robert Gates heard a McCain-like message from the troops when he traveled to Iraq after his swear-in ceremony. “More troops might hold [the enemy] off long enough to where we can get the Iraqi army trained up,” Private Spc. Jason Green of the 101st Military Intelligence Brigade told Gates. “More troops would help us integrate the Iraq army into patrols more,” said Pfc. Cassandra Wallace of the 10th Mountain Division.

Gates at least echoed McCain in saying that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would be “calamitous.” But there it is again -- the McCain narrative. It’s everywhere.

McCain clearly would rather do the right thing in our nation’s interest than the politically correct thing. He is about leadership and character and decisiveness. He seems to have the ability to assess American national-security needs, not just for the next few weeks, but the next few decades. And he is almost single-handedly lifting our war policy towards strength rather than weakness.

McCain is standing tall against the tides of wartime fatigue, the polls, and the conventional Beltway wisdom. Whatever the outcome of the Iraq debate, and even the 2008 presidential election, the senator is behaving in a remarkably brave and steadfast manner at a time when so many of our leaders are shrinking from those crucial public duties.

A rare bird. Senator Backbone. That’s John McCain.