Too much time, too much news, too little public memory, too much bull. Those are the big assets of Sen. John McCain.
McCain enjoys the fine image of a free-thinking, free-talking maverick who took on President Bush on the war, Hurricane Katrina, the profiteers who infested the administration and the economic malefactoring of the Bush years. Most of it either is pure malarkey, McCain joined the critics long after the rest of the country or else, as in the case of all Bush's tax cuts for the rich, he reversed course 180 degrees and promises more of the Bush economic medicine.
The real McCain, as much as anyone can divine about him and how he might try to run the country or might have run it if he had won in 2000, is lost in the fog of news and revisionist pronouncements of the past eight years. But thanks to David Kirkpatrick we have it all refreshed in the pages of the New York Times, which has published a series of detailed background pieces about the candidates. Kirkpatrick went back and tracked McCain's pronouncements about Iraq and war before and after the attacks of Sept. 11, and they were many.
The nub of it all is that the Iraqi war can be fairly said to be John McCain's war at least as much as it is George Bush's or Dick Cheney's. He was demanding and promising the invasion of Iraq long before Bush publicly raised the prospect. Indeed, well before 9/11 McCain had embraced the ideas of the neocolonialists who thought America should consolidate its place as the lone superpower by invading countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea and overthrowing autocratic governments that were considered hostile to the United States.
If he wanted, Bush could now claim in his own defense for starting a war that Americans despise that John McCain made him do it. He could make a far more convincing case of that than for anything else he ever said about the war. The record actually supports that but no other explanation Bush ever gave for invading Iraq.
It was McCain, not George W. Bush, who wanted to pursue that revolutionary foreign policy in 2000. Bush promised not to involve the U. S. military in “nation building” as Bill Clinton had done in Serbia and Kosovo. Dick Cheney subscribed to the neocolonialist craziness; he was a signatory of the Project for the American Century, which advocated the overthrow of Middle Eastern regimes by military force to demonstrate American hegemony and drive the Arab world into U.S.-style democracies and alliance.
In 2002 McCain praised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bush's entire national security team — the strongest ever assembled in the nation's history, he said — and revealed that he would have made Cheney vice president if he had been nominated and elected in 2000. As was pointed out here long ago, McCain was praising Rumsfeld and the way the war was conducted until the late summer of 2004 when the chaos and loss of U.S. blood persuaded a vast majority of Americans that the war had been a terrible mistake. That is when McCain became a critic.
It is all part of the record.
Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center, McCain made the rounds of TV and radio shows saying Bush should retaliate against terrorists far beyond Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's hideout, and he mentioned Iran, Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan and bin Laden were almost beside the point. Within a month, he was declaring on CNN that Iraq should be the major target.
On Jan. 2, 2002, McCain shouted to sailors and airmen on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, “Next up, Baghdad!” Not even Bush was uttering such things, though he had instructed his terrorist czar the morning after 9/11 to connect the attacks to Iraq.
Neither the terrorism chief nor the intelligence agencies were ever able to do it. That didn't stop Bush and Cheney from saying — Bush implying, Cheney saying — that Iraq had a role in the attacks. But every lie concocted by the administration to justify the war — the secret meeting of a 9/11 attacker with an Iraqi agent, al Qaeda activities in Iraq, all the rest —McCain uttered, usually first and without the slippery qualifications that Bush, Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice employed.
An old friend and former supporter of McCain, retired Gen. John H. Johns, lamented that McCain tended to react like a schoolboy: “Show me somebody to hit.”
Kirkpatrick said that six months before Bush began to make the case publicly that Iraq would have to be forced to give up his weapons of mass destruction McCain was beating the drums for war. When Bush was saying that he had not decided to attack, McCain was saying it was a done deal and obliquely criticized Bush for dallying. He lauded the corrupt Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi and pushed the Bush administration to put him in charge once Saddam Hussein fell. The whole Bush administration eventually concluded that Chalabi was a fraud, but not McCain.
Finally, nearly everything McCain predicted about the war turned out to be wrong, starting with his assessment in the early stages of the invasion that “a better world is already emerging from the rubble.” It would be a quick, easy, inexpensive and nearly bloodless triumph, financed by Iraqi oil money.
He is arguably the father of the most profligate and unpopular war in U. S. history, and he says the issue in the presidential campaign is Sen. Barack Obama's unreliable judgment. Just amazing.