If there was any doubt that Arizona Senator John McCain will seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, those concerns were forever erased this morning. Campaigning in Ohio for fellow Senator Mike DeWine, McCain accused the Bush Administration of "misleading" the American people on the War in Iraq. The chattering class (and congressional Democrats) will hail McCain's comments as another example of the Senator's "straight talk," but in reality, it was little more than a political move, designed to give McCain a little distance between himself and the administration, and avoid being labled as a White House lackey in the '08 campaign.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required,” McCain said. “Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders. I’m just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be.”
Those phrases, of course, have been uttered at various times by administration officials, and used (often out of context) by critics of President Bush and his Iraq policy. Senator McCain--predictably--ignores warnings from those same officials of potentially tough times in the GWOT, most famously illustrated by Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's "hard slog" memo from October, 2003. If Mr. McCain were interested in being fair--or accurate--he would point out that administration officials have often gone out of their way to avoid painting an overly-optimistic or rosy picture of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would also note that substantial progress has been made in both countries, despite the best efforts of terrorists to drive out coalition forces.
Unfortunately, there's little room for fairness or accuracy in modern presidential politics. To make a go of it in 2008, McCain clearly believes that he must distance himself from the administration and drive toward what he sees as the "political center." Ditto for his Nebraska colleague (and fellow White House aspirant) Chuck Hagel, who was out with his latest Iraq critique over the weekend.
McCain actually wants it both ways on Iraq. He has cautioned against a premature withdrawal from Iraq, warning of the dire consequences such a move might bring. That, of course, gives the Arizona Senator a little distance from the "cut and run" caucus of Senate Democrats. It's all a carefully calibrated political dance, designed to carve out a space for Mr. McCain somewhere in the middle, where (presumably) he can attract the support of "moderates" and those elusive "undecided" voters.
Ironically, McCain's calculations might actually open him up to serious questions and even political attacks--if other politicians and the chattering class were so inclined. Questions about current policies in Iraq are actually rooted in administration decisions--and congressional votes--made in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mr. McCain was a prominent member of Congress. For example, how did the Senator vote on Clinton-era measures that denied full funding for intelligence programs, and cut four divisions from the active-duty Army? Such short-sighted decisions are a major reason for "the lack" of troops and intelligence deficiencies in Iraq, and I'm guessing that McCain went along with those decisions with nary a peep. In that sense, we need some "straight talk" about McCain's own voting record in the 1990s, and the role he played in "shaping" the military forces and intelligence assets being employed in the GWOT. Mr. McCain may ultimately discover that he can't have it both ways on Iraq.
Ace at Polipundit has a quote from President Bush from 2003 that echoed Rumsfeld's cautions on Iraq. Apparently, Senator McCain's research staff missed that one, too.