McCain's Straight Talk Express goes off the rails on Iraq

John McCain's broad appeal is grounded in his reputation as a candid man of principle, the rare politician who speaks uncomfortable truths, no matter the political cost.

In one of the least expected developments of the campaign season, McCain has profited from his early support of the so-called surge. Given that the invasion of Iraq was already broadly unpopular at the time, his support for sending even more U.S. troops burnished his credentials as a man willing to sacrifice popularity to principle.

But those credentials are greatly exaggerated. McCain has engaged in double-talk and dissembling on Iraq, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. On that subject, his Straight Talk Express is careering wildly off-course.

Just last week, as Gen. David Petraeus prepared to testify before Congress, McCain gave a wildly upbeat assessment of progress, insisting that "we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success." That contrasted sharply with the more realistic assessment from the general, who called any progress "fragile and reversible."

"We haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel," Petraeus said.

McCain, like Dick Cheney and George Bush, also continues to insist that "a central battleground in the battle against al-Qaida is in Iraq today." In fact, before our invasion, there were no terrorist groups associated with Osama bin Laden operating in the parts of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein. Even today, insurgents associated with al-Qaida represent a small fraction of those fomenting violence in Iraq. (Osama, of course, is widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan.)

And, like Cheney and Bush, McCain continues to conflate al-Qaida's Sunni insurgents with Shiite troublemakers aided by Iran, even though the Sunnis and Shiites violently oppose each other.

(While many political observers believe McCain is genuinely confused about Sunnis and Shiites, I give him more credit. I think it's intentional. attributing most of the violence in Iraq to al-Qaida, McCain makes an implicit connection to 9/11.)

Of course, you'll remember that infamous episode last year, when McCain returned from a trip to Baghdad and declared to a talk show host that some of its neighborhoods were safe enough "you and I could walk through." It turned out that the senator had ventured out of the Green Zone only with 100 U.S. soldiers accompanying him and two Apache gunships and three Blackhawk helicopters overhead.

As was bound to happen in this campaign, Democrats have begun to throttle McCain over his dogged support of the war, especially his cavalier insistence that U.S. troops could stay in Iraq for "100 years." For a man supposedly bound to principle, McCain has oddly tried to walk away from his own words, claiming his opponents have taken him out of context. His supporters are also manning the barricades, contending McCain is being falsely maligned.

In fact, McCain has used the "100 years" phrase more than once; at one campaign stop, he said Americans wouldn't object to keeping troops in Iraq "100 years or 1,000 years or 10,000 years" as long as there were no U.S. casualties. The problem is, of course, that there will be dead Americans as long as we remain there as occupiers. Neither South Korea or Japan, homogeneous cultures free of sectarian strife, presents a useful analogy.

But that's not the most troubling remark McCain has made about war. On the campaign trail in Florida, he told supporters "there's gonna be other wars. I'm sorry to tell you, but there's gonna be other wars ..."

Other wars? How many others? Iran? North Korea?

It's no wonder that McCain has long been the darling of such neoconservatives as Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, who openly urged the invasion of Iraq as early as 1998. Several neocons have also advocated military action against Iran, Syria and North Korea. If McCain is such a straight-talker, it's time for him to tell us just how many more countries he plans to go to war with, and where he plans to find the money and the soldiers to do it.

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