McCain's Success Tied to Americans' Views on Iraq

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Five years ago, as the United States prepared to send stealth fighters and Tomahawk missiles into Baghdad, John McCain delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

"When the people of Iraq are liberated, we will again have written another chapter in the glorious history of the United States," McCain said on the day the war began.

The liberation of Iraq has turned out to be a much longer chapter than many expected, with at least as much tragedy as glory. But five years later, McCain defends the decision to invade Iraq. And he has staked his presidential campaign on completing the mission that U.S. forces began in March 2003.

McCain After the Fall of Baghdad

He has not been an uncritical cheerleader. Barely a month after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in the streets of Baghdad, McCain sounded a warning that all was not well.

"The fault does not lie with our armed forces, but with leaders whose planning for post-war challenges was as inadequate as their war plan was brilliant," he wrote in the afterword to his book, Worth the Fighting For. "And I must confess, the blame for our failures in post-war Iraq must also be shared by the war's supporters in Congress, like me, who did not scrupulously inquire about planning for the war's aftermath and insist on improvements to it."

Within five months of the initial invasion, McCain was calling for a substantial increase in the number of U.S. troops, to counter a growing Iraqi insurgency.

"To win in Iraq, we should increase the number of forces in-country, including Marines and Special Forces, to conduct offensive operations," McCain told the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2003. "I believe we must deploy at least another full division."

McCain's opinion was not popular at the time, neither with Pentagon leaders who believed in fighting light and fast, nor with the American public, who feared putting more troops at risk. But history has vindicated the former Navy pilot turned politician.

"McCain basically had it right," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Some commanders on the ground were saying, 'We're OK here. We've got enough troops.' And McCain was disagreeing with them, and McCain was right and they were wrong."

Calls for Additional Troops

McCain kept calling for more troops through 2004 and '05, and he wasn't shy about challenging then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"He said these things when he'd get the most attention because he wanted the policy to change," O'Hanlon said. "He was unsuccessful, but he certainly was very emphatic in his views."

By the fall of 2005, the U.S. death toll in Iraq had reached 2,000, and the public was growing weary. Vice President Dick Cheney had insisted over the summer that the insurgency was in its "last throes." But McCain continued to argue that the U.S. needed more troops in Iraq and more straight talk at home.

"If we can't retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield," he said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.

In fact, public support was already lost. By the summer of 2005, Gallup polls showed that a majority of Americans believed the war was a mistake, and support hit bottom in 2007, shortly after the Bush administration finally launched its troop surge.

McCain said he understands the public's frustration, given the mistakes that were made. He said politicians could either bow to that frustration and "accept defeat," or pay the political price in order to succeed in Iraq.

"For my part, I would rather lose a campaign than a war," he told cadets at Virginia Military Institute in April 2007.

Campaign Fortunes Tied to Iraq

Having hitched his presidential hopes to an unpopular war, McCain's own poll numbers fell sharply. It was during a low point in August 2007 that he had an encounter in Wolfeboro, N.H., that has become a regular part of his campaign stump speech.

"A woman stood up and said, 'Sen. McCain, Would you do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son's name on it? Matthew Stanley. He was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, just before Christmas last year. He was 22 years old.' "

Cpl. Stanley's mother, Lynn Savage, wasn't even a McCain supporter when she went to that town hall meeting. She had merely tagged along because her husband was going. As McCain spoke, she got to thinking about the bracelet she had worn during the Vietnam war in honor of prisoners of war like McCain.

"And it suddenly occurred to me that I was now wearing a black one," Savage said. "And I thought that perhaps since I had worn one to honor the soldiers of his era, if he wouldn't mind wearing one for my son."

Savage says her son was on his second tour in Iraq when he was killed. Just before leaving, he told his mom he was excited to be going back.

"He said he had a job to do and he wanted to finish it. I hope that we will finish the job that we started and that we'll show the rest of the world that we won't surrender," Savage said. " I'm not an advocate for war, don't get me wrong. For whatever reason that we're there, we are there, and we need to finish what we started."

McCain repeated the story of Matthew Stanley at a town hall meeting in Waco, Texas, and promised to do everything in his power to see that he and other Americans had not died in vain.

The following day, McCain won the Texas primary and clinched the GOP presidential nomination.

Political Comeback Mirrors Shifting Attitudes

A majority of Americans still believe the invasion was a mistake. But there is a growing sense that things are improving in Iraq, and about half the public now thinks U.S. troops should remain.

"There's been a bounce-back in support for keeping troops in Iraq and certainly much more of a view that we're doing OK and that we might even succeed," said Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

That does not safeguard McCain from criticism, like that leveled by Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who said McCain was wrong to support the war in the first place. But Kohut says it does make McCain's position on the war look a little less politically poisonous than it did last summer.

"Sen. McCain can say, 'Look, my judgment about going to war may be different than yours. But the policies that I've advocated about the way to pursue the war have been working,' and he can make a case for some independence and for being right to some extent," Kohut said.

In May 2003, McCain wrote that there was still time for the U.S. to correct its "initial negligence" and keep its promise to Iraq and the world. The test for McCain is whether that's still true, almost five years later.

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