MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

Five years ago, as the U.S. prepared to send stealth fighters and Tomahawk missiles into Baghdad, John McCain said the liberation of Iraq would provide, in his words, another chapter in the glorious history of the United States. The war in Iraq has turned out to be a much longer chapter than many people expected but McCain still defends the decision to invade Iraq, and hes staked his presidential campaign on winning a war he calls necessary and just.

NPRs Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Barely a month after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in the streets of Baghdad, John McCain sounded a warning - planning for post-war reconstruction was inadequate, he wrote in May 2003. And he and his congressional colleagues were partly to blame. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says, of all the politicians who visited Iraq in those first months of the war, McCain was neither a hand-wringing opponent nor an uncritical cheerleader.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Democrats went and said it was hopeless, its lost. They were wrong.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. GRAHAM: Republicans went and came back and said things are going great. Its just the media's fault. They were wrong.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. GRAHAM: John went and saw what needed to be done.

HORSLEY: Within five months of the initial invasion, McCain was calling for a substantial increase in the number of U.S. troops.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Special Forces, Marines, counterintelligence, linguists, civil affairs - we need far better intelligence capability and thats - it means in the thousands of troops.

HORSLEY: McCains opinion was not popular at the time with either the Pentagon or the public. But military analyst Michael OHanlon of The Brookings Institution says, history has vindicated the former Navy-pilot-turned-politician.

Mr. MICHAEL OHANLON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): McCain basically had it right. Some commanders on the ground were saying, were okay here, weve got enough troops. And McCain was disagreeing with them, and McCain was right and they were wrong.

HORSLEY: McCain kept calling for more troops all through 2004 and 2005, even as the administration was promising the insurgency was in its last throes. He said that U.S. needed more force in Iraq and more straight talk here at home.

Sen. McCAIN: If we cant retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield.

HORSLEY: In fact, public support was already lost. By mid-2005, a majority of Americans believed the war was a mistake. And support hit bottom last year shortly after the administration finally launched its troop surge. McCain told cadets at the Virginia Military Institute last spring, politicians could either bow to public frustration and accept defeat or pay the political price to succeed in Iraq.

Sen. McCAIN: For my part, I would rather lose a campaign than a war.

HORSLEY: For a time, it looked as if McCain would lose his presidential campaign. It was during a low point last August that he had an encounter in New Hampshire thats now become a regular part of his campaign stump speech.

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

HORSLEY: Corporal Stanleys mother, Lynn Savage says she wasnt even a McCain supporter when she went to that town hall meeting. She had merely tagged along with her husband. As McCain spoke, she got to thinking about the bracelet she had worn during the Vietnam War in honor of POWs like McCain.

Ms. LYNN SAVAGE (Corporal Stanleys Mother): And it suddenly occurred to me that I was now wearing a black one. And I thought that perhaps since I had worn one to honor the soldiers of his era, if he wouldnt mind wearing one for my son.

Sen. McCAIN: I said I would be honored to wear the bracelet with your sons name on it. And then she said, Sen. McCain, I want you to just promise me one thing. Youll promise me that you will do everything in your power to make sure that my sons death was not in vain.

HORSLEY: Savage says her son was on his second tour in Iraq when he was killed. He told his mom he was excited to be going back.

Ms. SAVAGE: He says that he had a job to do and he wanted to finish it. I hope that well finish the job that we started and that well show the rest of the world that, you know, we wont surrender. Im not an advocate for war, dont get me wrong. You know, for whatever reason that were there, we are there, and we need to finish what we started.

HORSLEY: McCain repeated the story of Matthew Stanley at a town hall meeting in Waco, Texas, one day, before he won the Texas primary and clinched the GOP nomination.

(Soundbite of song "Youve Got to Stand for Something")

Mr. AARON TIPPIN (Singer): (Singing) Youd say youve got to stand for something or youll fall for anything.

HORSLEY: McCains own political comeback has been mirrored by a shift in attitude towards the war. A majority of the Americans still believe the invasion was a mistake. But pollster Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center says theres a growing sense that things are improving in Iraq and about half the public now believes the U.S. troops should remain.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press): Theres been some bounce-back in support for keeping troops in Iraq and certainly much more of a view that were doing okay that we might even succeed.

HORSLEY: That doesnt safeguard McCain from criticism from Barack Obama and others that he was wrong to support the war in the first place. But Kohut says it does make McCains position look a little less politically poisonous than it did last summer.

Mr. KOHUT: Sen. McCain can say look, my judgment about going to war may be different than yours but the policies that Ive advocated about the way to pursue the war have been working and, you know, he can make a case for some independents and for being right to some extent.

HORSLEY: Back in 2003, when McCain first penned his concerns about the war, he wrote 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 thats still true - almost five years later.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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