Politics & Policy

The McCain Divorce

The Republican presidential field has recently been rocked by yet another divorce: The mainstream media have dumped Sen. John McCain.

The former media darling has maintained a modicum of optimism about the Iraq War, which is enough for the media to conclude that he and they have irreconcilable differences. In almost every public statement, McCain has qualified his relative optimism with appropriate cautions about the uncertain nature of the promising signs and about the difficulties still ahead. Over the last week or so–on Bill Bennett’s radio show and during a trip to Iraq–McCain overstated somewhat the safety of Baghdad. He admitted as much in his 60 Minutes interview over the weekend.

But the press has been savage, making McCain out to be the “Tokyo Rose” of the Iraq hawks when he has in fact been among the most honest and clear-eyed of the war’s supporters. The press never holds detractors of the war to similarly niggling standards of accuracy. It doesn’t have fits when Democrats talk of Iraq as though Moqtada al-Sadr’s thugs still roamed the streets, freely murdering and torturing. It doesn’t mind when Democrats ignore halting steps toward political reconciliation in Iraq–for example, prime minister Nouri al-Malki’s Sunni-outreach trip to Ramadi. It is fine with Democrats’ not noticing that the Sunni tribes are turning against al Qaeda, and that–despite all the downbeat predictions–the Iraqis have delivered the troops they promised for their end of the surge.

As McCain would be the first to tell you, none of these developments means that victory is just over the horizon. But he is right that the surge shows promise–promise that, with a few notable exceptions, is ignored by mainstream media that apparently love the narrative of defeat more than they ever loved John McCain.

In response to his critics, the senator gave a speech on the war yesterday at the Virginia Military Institute that was truly magnificent. He correctly noted that the war is part of a broader “struggle between violent extremists and the forces of modernity and moderation.” He stated–inarguably, in our view–that “America has a vital interest in preventing the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists, similar to Afghanistan before 9/11.” If the U.S. leaves Iraq without securing Iraq’s stability, the sectarian violence could devolve into a full-scale civil war that leads to genocide and a regional conflagration. “Given our security interests and our moral investment in Iraq,” McCain said, “so long as we have a chance to prevail we must try to prevail.”

He was especially good in excoriating the disgraceful conduct of the new Democratic majority: “Many in Washington have called for an end to our involvement in Iraq. Yet they offer no opinion about the consequences of this course of action beyond a vague assurance that all will be well if the Iraqis are left to work out their differences themselves.” This vague assurance is obviously not credible, but it allows Democrats to flinch from facing the likely strategic and humanitarian consequences of their policy of withdrawal. Someone should make Nancy Pelosi and every Democrat running for president remember this sentence in particular: “In Washington, cynicism appears to be the quality most prized by those who accept defeat but not the responsibility for its consequences.”

We have had many differences with Senator McCain over the years, but can only brim with admiration for the clarion voice he has sounded at this critical juncture in the war. The media are almost ready to pronounce his presidential candidacy dead. It has indeed been sagging (for many reasons), but there is an element of malice in the media’s predictions. Surely Republican primary voters won’t find McCain’s leadership on Iraq as strange and irksome as the press does. How often do media hand-wringers lament that politicians’ won’t buck the polls and make unpopular stands on principle? Sen. John McCain is doing just that, and all the press can bring itself to do is carp.


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