McCain Unbound

Earlier today, John McCain delivered a speech on the Iraq war at Virginia Military Institute. It was an excellent, hard-hitting speech. You can read it all here; these are a few key paragraphs:

After my first visit to Iraq in 2003, I argued for more troops. I took issue with statements characterizing the insurgency as a few ‘dead-enders’ or being in its ‘last throes.’ I criticized the search and destroy strategy and argued for a counter-insurgency approach that separated the reconcilable population from the irreconcilable. That is the course now followed by General Petraeus, and the brave Americans and coalition troops he has the honor to command.
It is the right strategy. General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counter insurgency. He is a determined, resourceful and bold commander. Our troops, many of whom have served multiple tours in Iraq, are performing with great skill and bravery. But the hour is late and, despite the developments I just described, we should have no illusion that success is certain. But having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed. To do otherwise would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.

McCain was unsparing in his criticisms of Congressional Democrats:

What struck me upon my return from Baghdad is the enormous gulf between the harsh but hopeful realities in Iraq, where politics is for many a matter of life and death, and the fanciful and self-interested debates about Iraq that substitute for statesmanship in Washington. In Iraq, American and Iraqi soldiers risk everything to hold the country together, to prevent it from becoming a terrorist sanctuary and the region from descending into the dangerous chaos of a widening war. In Washington, where political calculation seems to trump all other considerations, Democrats in Congress and their leading candidates for President, heedless of the terrible consequences of our failure, unanimously confirmed our new commander, and then insisted he be prevented from taking the action he believes necessary to safeguard our country’s interests. In Iraq, hope is a fragile thing, but all the more admirable for the courage and sacrifice necessary to nurture it. In Washington, cynicism appears to be the quality most prized by those who accept defeat but not the responsibility for its consequences.
Before I left for Iraq, I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering.

After the VMI speech, McCain did a conference call with bloggers, in which I was able to participate. McCain, talking about the war, is deeply impressive. I didn’t think much of the “straight talk express” back in 2000, but in today’s conference call, McCain was strikingly blunt and candid.
While McCain lays out the evidence that the surge is showing signs of progress, he is careful not to over-sell a “rosy scenario.” He is harshly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the war from 2003 until the recent change in strategy, not least because it failed to acknowledge the true scope of the difficulties we faced in Iraq. McCain is Churchillian in his recitation of the dangers we face and the difficulty of the task ahead.
McCain was also blunt in his assessment of the Pentagon’s performance in Iraq. During the question period, I said that it seemed to be taking a long time to get all of the personnel contemplated for the surge into the fight; I asked whether that perception is right, and if so, why. McCain agreed that it is taking a long time, in part because of a “lack of a sense of urgency” in the Pentagon. Further, the delay is caused by the fact that our military is too small–a third smaller than at the time of the Gulf War, which he views as a “Rumsfeld legacy.”
Of course, bashing the Pentagon is a time-honored tradition. But McCain was no more sparing of the generals who preceded Gen. Petraeus. He noted that he voted against confirming General Casey as the Army’s Chief of Staff and said, of the generals who commanded during the first four years of the war, that “history will judge them very harshly.”
There was lots more, all of it consistent in tone with the VMI speech. The major Republican candidates are all strong on the war against Islamic extremism. But on that issue, no one can match McCain’s passion or credibility. You really do get the sense that he is willing to make this battle, on behalf of the young men and women who are fighting and have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last act of his career, if that is what it comes to. At one point in our conference call he was asked how he thought his position on the war was impacting his political prospects. His answer included the words, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
We are living through a depressing political season, in which craven political calculation routinely trumps concern for national security, and many on the left openly cheer for defeat. In this environment, John McCain has flung down the gauntlet on behalf of victory, and we applaud him for it.
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