April 7, 2008 -- Talking to reporters on his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, earlier this year, John McCain said that if he cannot convince voters that the war in Iraq is succeeding, "I lose, I lose."
He immediately said that he didn't really mean that — that he wanted to retract the remark. But what he blurted out that day may be a pretty accurate assessment.
For better or worse, McCain has largely hitched his presidential ambitions to the Iraq War. So far, it has at times been for better. At times for worse. In the spring and early summer of last year, McCain paid a political price for his support for the war and the troop surge.
When the surge began to show signs of succeeding in quelling violence late in the summer and into the fall, McCain began his slow ascent that culminated in his becoming the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Opponents With Different Views
This fall, McCain will face one of two opponents who advocate withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on a fixed timetable. McCain says a precipitous withdrawal would be a grievous error with serious consequences: civil war and genocide inside Iraq, a resurgence of al Qaeda In Iraq and regional instability.
The candidate whose assessment is most convincing to American voters may be the next president. McCain is gambling that he can convince the American public, most of whom now say the war was a mistake, that it is still a worthy cause that can and must be won.
"I would rather a lose a campaign than lose the war," McCain often says.
In a speech Monday to the Veteran of Foreign Wars chapter in Kansas City, Missouri, McCain delivered his most forceful and comprehensive argument yet for his position and reasoning on the war in Iraq. The speech came on the eve of the congressional testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
In the speech, McCain makes the case to a skeptical public that the situation on the ground is improving militarily and politically. He is asking a doubting public for the patience and resolve to finish the job.
"There is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq," he said. "We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success. Success in Iraq is the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists."
McCain all but accuses Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of playing political games by ignoring or denying progress in Iraq and calling for withdrawal.
"The American people deserve the truth from their leaders," he said. "They deserve a candid assessment of the progress we have managed to make in the last year in preventing the worst from happening in Iraq, of the very serious difficulties that remain, and of the grave consequences of a hasty, reckless, and irresponsible withdrawal.
"If we are honest about the opportunities and the risks, I believe they will have the patience to allow us the time necessary to obtain our objectives. That honesty is my responsibility, and it is also the responsibility of Senators Obama and Clinton, as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress," McCain said.
"Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing. But when 4,000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of our failure in Iraq, it is a necessary thing. In such a grave matter, we must put the nation's interests before our own ambitions."
That's a harsh critique of his two prospective opponents coupled with a rather audacious advertisement for himself: that they are political opportunists willing to deceive Americans and exploit popular sentiment for their own advancement — and he is not.
The McCain campaign has been especially irked by Obama's repeated recent attacks saying that McCain is willing — or even eager — to wage war in Iraq for 100 years, a distortion of what McCain actually said. McCain said a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq akin to that in South Korea could be acceptable if American casualties were eliminated.
The McCain campaign and Republican National Committee have relentlessly tried to rebut Obama on this point, but the Illinois Democrat keeps saying it, no doubt convinced it is an effective line of attack that puts McCain on the defensive.
McCain is acting pre-emptively in anticipation of another line of attack from Obama, should the Illinois senator face his senior colleague from Arizona in the general election, as many in McCain's campaign predict will happen. McCain is saying the debate this fall should not be about the decisions that were made to get the U.S. into the war, but rather about what to do going forward.
This plays to the McCain campaign's belief that voters will trust McCain as commander-n-chief over Clinton or Obama, and seeks to blunt the expected criticism of McCain for being an early and ardent supporter of the decision to go to war.
"The question for the next President is not about the past, but about the future and how to secure it," he said in his speech today. "Our most vital security interests are at stake in Iraq. The stability of the entire Middle East, that volatile and critically important region, is at stake. The United States' credibility as a moral and political leader is at stake. How to safeguard those interests is what we should be debating."
McCain will have to persuade voters too that what he is calling for is something different than just a continuation of the war policy of President George W. Bush.
The Democrats seemed to have settled on the skewering one-liner than a McCain Administration would amount to a third Bush term.
McCain has tried to separate himself from Bush's Iraq policy by asserting that he was a harsh critic of what he calls the failed "Rumsfeld strategy" that preceded the surge.
He has also begun adding to his remarks on Iraq that he envisions a withdrawal of some unspecified number of troops as Iraqi forces gain the ability to handle their country's security — a scenario undermined by the Iraqi troops' inability to put down the uprising by Shi'ite militias in Basra last month.
A Moral Imperative
McCain will likely continue to cast the war in Iraq as not just a struggle of geo-political import, but as a matter of morality, a rhetorical tack he first took in a speech in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
"We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq," he said in that speech, which he delivered after returning from a week-long trip abroad, including his eighth visit to Iraq. "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal."
McCain also seems to believe he has a personal moral responsibility to people like Lynne Savage of Wolfeboro, N.H. in the U.S. succeeding in Iraq. Her son, Army Cpl. Matthew Stanley, was killed in Iraq in December 2006. McCain met her at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last summer where she gave the candidate her metal bracelet bearing her son's name and photo. McCain has worn it ever since.
At the end of almost every campaign speech, he refers to Mrs. Savage and her son.
"She said [to me], 'I just want you to promise me one thing,'" McCain said at a campaign stop in Springfield, Illinois. "'I want you to promise me that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain.' I promised her then I would. and I will keep that promise, not only to her, but to thousands and thousands of other family members of brave, young Americans who have served and sacrifice."
In his speech in Kansas City, McCain quotes Winston Churchill: "Never despair."
McCain realizes very well that many Americans are despairing of the hope that the war in Iraq can ever be successfully concluded. To them, very simply, he too is saying: "Never despair." If he cannot convince Americans of that, it will be very difficult for him to become the country's next president.