Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The McCain scrutiny IX

Sen. John McCain’s toughest opponent between now and November is likely to be a surprisingly nimble politician with an Islamic name, and it’s not who you think it is.

It’s true that Sen. Barack Obama has been an able challenger, but for McCain, the bigger concern in the short term may be dealing with Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the elected prime minister of Iraq, whose inconvenient call on Monday for the United States to either leave Iraq or to set a timetable to do so has, in an instant, reset the dynamic of the Iraq war as a foreign-policy issue for the White House and a political issue for the McCain campaign.

This is McCain’s dilemma now: waging a political campaign whose stay-the-course militaristic underpinnings vis-à-vis Iraq have been suddenly undermined by the Iraqi government. It is only the latest of challenges before him.

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Maliki on Monday confirmed that his government was considering a short-term agreement with the United States that would extend the presence of American troops and include a timetable for withdrawal, The New York Times reported.

On Tuesday, through Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, Maliki made it clearer still. “We will not accept a memorandum of understanding without having timeline horizons for the cessation of combat operations as well as the departure of all the combat brigades,” he said in a phone interview with Campbell Robertson of The Times.

Team McCain — along with the State Department of the same Bush administration that McCain says he thinks independently of — have said that something was lost in translation, that Maliki was speaking more in the context of a domestic politician, appealing to his constituency with a proposal rather than a plan; that any withdrawal plans will be determined “by the situation on the ground” — a position more or less identical to what Obama has maintained for months.

But McCain has already been on the record about where he stands on such a scenario. He laid it out at a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations on April 22, 2007:

“Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it's obvious that we would have to leave … if it was an elected government of Iraq … I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.”

The McCain campaign will almost certainly refine its policies on this matter. As it is, the McCain shibboleth of opposition to a withdrawal timetable — one of his foreign-policy campaign weapons and the same “tantamount to surrender” club he’s tried to beat Obama upside the head with for months — has been neutralized as a campaign issue.

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McCain is vulnerable on another war-related front. His campaign’s obsession with Iraq as the front line on the war on terrorism largely overlooks evolving events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama’s months-ago pivot toward national-security issues linked to those two countries puts him in a position of forward thinking — the Democrat considering the next theater in the war on terrorism, rather than the last one.

By continuing to focus on Iraq, and especially in the wake of Maliki’s demands, McCain has effectively positioned his own campaign behind the curve on this aspect of national security.

Under new management, Team McCain has retrenched somewhat, with a new round of campaign ads in the battleground states, ads intended to reintroduce McCain to the nation. One of the ads is instructive as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it communicates, at times movingly:

For all its documentary power and its assumption of the national symbols and verities, this ad preaches mightily to the choir. It doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been with McCain already; it fails to suggest how McCain would embrace not only force but also the strength of diplomacy in his foreign policy; and it offers no outreach to the millions of younger, disaffected voters he’ll need to prevail in the fall. It’s an eloquent line in the sand, but it’s the same line in the sand McCain has drawn in the past to distinguish himself from Barack Obama.

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More concerning for voters may be the baseline of terrorist fear McCain has sought to evoke in the nation as a reason for making him president. This came clear in June, when McCain chief strategist Charlie Black said, in a Fortune magazine interview, that another 9/11-style terrorist attack would play to the Republicans’ advantage.

This followed McCain’s own statement to CNN in December, after the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, that her killing would burnish his credentials on foreign policy. Team McCain’s play of the fear card didn’t go unnoticed.

“If this were just one comment by John McCain or one comment by his chief strategist, that might be forgivable or an apology might be credible,” said Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, an Obama supporter, on MSNBC June 25. “But this is now the second, possibly the third instance in which the mindset of John McCain is becoming quite evident … he appears to be calculating the value of a terrorist attack or an assassination to his campaign. And that’s quite eerie.”

All of which is why McCain is hobbled, at least briefly, by Maliki’s call for withdrawal from Iraq. With his CFR speech last year, with Maliki’s demand for a pullout, and with the loss of the boogeyman of unbridled chaos in Iraq he’s waved in front of the American people, McCain is forced into having to actually articulate a policy on the war on terrorism that doesn’t feature Iraq as the main attraction, a policy that entertains (for him) the unthinkable: a timetable for bringing American forces home.

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Warm-fuzzy patriotic ads won’t change voters’ perceptions of McCain as an ardent and eager hawk; all the campaign retooling and staff-shifting in the world can’t alter the public’s foundational perception of McCain as first and foremost a cold-war champion of military force at the utter expense of diplomacy.

But then, subtlety and nuance aren’t strong suits for the Republicans. For the last seven-plus years, they haven’t had to be. John McCain has been and is now as much a victim of that fact as a beneficiary of it.

And sadly for McCain, that lack of subtlety and nuance in foreign affairs makes perfect sense: When you have crafted your political persona, generated so much of your political capital on defining yourself as a hammer, it’s no surprise that the world at large looks like nothing but a nail.
Image credits: McCain: T toes, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. Maliki: Public domain. Framing hammer: Luigi Zanasi, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0 Canada. Nail: Marcos André, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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