Saturday, January 06, 2007

McCain's hawkish views up stakes for '08

WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record)'s call for a substantial and sustained influx of U.S. troops in Iraq sets the Republican apart from other White House candidates — and it could help him or haunt him come 2008.

The Arizona senator's hawkish position that the United States must do what is necessary to win the war might appeal to hard-core Republicans, but it also has the potential to turn off most Americans whose support for the nearly 4-year-old war has diminished.

"I have presidential ambitions, but they pale in comparison to what I think is most important to our nation's security. If it destroys any ambitions I may have, I'm willing to pay that price gladly," McCain said Friday, brushing aside scenarios of political fallout.

A decorated Vietnam war veteran considered one of Congress' authorities on military matters, McCain has long said the United States did not send enough troops to Iraq for the 2003 invasion. He has been a vocal advocate of sending thousands more troops to the war zone to calm sectarian violence that has ravaged Baghdad and beyond.

Securing the country, McCain says, would allow for political progress and economic development that has been stunted thus far.

The stance has generated attention — and scrutiny — as President Bush prepares to announce a new Iraq strategy that's expected to include a troop increase.

McCain is "staking out a position as a hawk on this war — that it's winnable and we're going to move forward and do this. Certainly it's a risky strategy," said Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University.

"But right now his sights are on winning the nomination for his party. And that's a position that's going to get him a lot of support as he pursues it."

Of McCain's most serious potential challengers for the Republican nomination, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has largely resisted wading into the Iraq debate. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said that while withdrawing "would be a mistake," decisions on troop levels should be left to the military.

But likely Democratic rivals have taken aim. Former North Carolina Sen.
John Edwards opposed what he called "the McCain doctrine," and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said of the Republican, "I think he is wrong."

A recent Associated Press-AOL News Poll found that most Americans are pessimistic about the future of Iraq and few expect the situation to get any better. A majority doubt that a stable, democratic government will be established there, and eight in 10 think the conflict will end with a compromise, not a clear-cut victory.

The public also heavily favors a timetable for withdrawing all forces in the next two years — a sentiment that conflicts with McCain's go-big strategy.
Having recently returned from a trip to Iraq, the senator staunchly defended his position Friday before a standing-room-only crowd at the American Enterprise Institute. A travel companion and ally, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, backed him up.

Outside the conservative policy center, dozens stood in a drizzling rain to protest any escalation of forces. They carried signs and shouted, "John and Joe have got to go!"

"John's taking a gutsy position, not because he's read any political opinion polls or sifted through the results of the last election, but because he thinks that's what's right for America," Lieberman said.

Interjecting, McCain said, "Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman — many other presidents have taken unpopular positions for the good of the nation."

Neither senator would put a precise number on a buildup they seek but said that at a minimum it should be what commanders in Iraq have told them is needed — another three to five brigades in Baghdad and at least one more brigade in the Anbar province. Typically, about 3,500 troops are in a brigade.
About 140,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now.

As Bush put the finishing touches on his new strategy, McCain said he believes success is still possible but warned that a small, short-term increase in forces would not be sufficient to win and would be "the worst of all worlds."

"It has to be significant and sustained. Otherwise, do not do it. Otherwise, there will be more needless loss of American lives," said McCain, the top GOP senator on the Armed Services Committee.

"The strategy will mean more casualties, extra hardships for our brave fighting men and women, and the violence may get worse before it gets better," McCain said. However, he added, the consequences of failure would be "potentially catastrophic."

Answering critics, McCain acknowledged that the military would be over-stressed under his proposal but said, "I believe there's only one thing worse than an overstressed military — and that's a broken and defeated military."


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