McCain's Stance on Iraq Weighs Down Campaign

Sen. John McCain travels to Virginia Military Institute to tell graduates that there's no way out of Iraq except to win. But an increasing number of observers think the sinking ship that needs saving is McCain's own political viability.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

John McCain tried to revive his flagging presidential campaign today with a speech on the Iraq war. That issue more than any other has complicated McCain's bid for the White House. All three leading Republican presidential candidates support President Bush's policy in Iraq, but McCain has been the most closely linked with the decision to send more troops to Baghdad.

In his speech today, McCain tried to convince the country that the strategy should be given a chance to succeed. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Many of the cadets who came to hear McCain at the Virginia Military Institute had recently returned from Iraq, and McCain told them they were more than able to discern truth from falsehood in a politician's appraisal of the war.

McCain himself was criticized for offering an overly rosy view after his visit to Baghdad last week. But today he insisted that increased security in the capital is a reason for cautious optimism.

JOHN MCCAIN: These and other indicators of progress are encouraging, but they are determinative. I understand and you understand the damage false optimism does to public patience and support. We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq, and not how we wish them to be.

LIASSON: It may seem like a risky political strategy to wrap himself even tighter in a cause that a majority of Americans have given up on, but McCain clearly believes in the surge. He argued for years for even more troops to implement the kind of counterinsurgency the president is trying now.

MCCAIN: 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.

LIASSON: McCain painted a dire picture of what would happen if the U.S. left too soon. He said Iraq would become a wild West for terrorists, like Afghanistan before 9/11. There would be a civil war that could spread beyond Iraq's borders, and a genocide that would rival Rwanda's.

McCain had harsh words for Democrats, who favor withdrawing troops now. He said they were following a cynical strategy that accepts defeat with no responsibility for the consequences.

MCCAIN: We who are willing to support this new strategy have chosen a hard road, but it is the right road. It is necessary and just. Democrats who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit, even if it gives them an advantage in the next election. The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public-opinion poll.

LIASSON: As McCain has acknowledged, he disagrees with the majority of Americans, who now tell public opinion pollsters they see Iraq as a hopeless cause. In a press conference after the speech, McCain said it was going to be hard to convince them otherwise.

MCCAIN: Very difficult, extremely difficult - well, because we employed a failed policy for so long and this failed strategy. But Americans are very frustrated, very saddened by the failures of the past, and that's very understandable.

LIASSON: That failed strategy has not only made success in Iraq more difficult to achieve now, but it's changed the politics of the issue at home.

MCCAIN: I believe that many Democrats view this as a political opportunity, and many Republicans view it as a political burden. I think it should be neither. I think we should be most concerned about the future of this nation as relates to a failure or a success in Iraq.

LIASSON: For better or worse, McCain's political future is tied to Iraq. He says it shouldn't be viewed as a burden, but his advisors acknowledge it certainly is one for him. However, it's a burden McCain willingly carries, and he embraced it even more tightly today. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Lexington, Virginia.

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