Goldberg on McCain

I'm halfway through Jeff's beautifully reported cover on John McCain. One theme that rings out is just how much war is at the core of John McCain's being. I don't mean that as a slight--it just seems true. Jeff would probably disagree with this, but to my mind his reporting shows how much the literal fight has blinded McCain to the greater war. Dig this scene with McCain and Lindsey Graham:

"They were running for the exit signs," Graham said, and Democrats weren't the only ones unhappy with McCain's vociferous calls for troop increases.

"Some of our Republican friends were jumping ship," McCain said. "I can't tell you the number of guys who said, 'We've got to get out.'" Earlier he had told me, "I think another problem is that some of the leading thinkers in America said the war was lost, it was over--Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Joe Klein of Time, a long list of people who are widely respected said the war was lost."

Graham recalled the numerous bipartisan attempts, including one led by the Republican defense stalwart John Warner, to bring the war to a quick close: "There were nine different plans, and we beat the shit out of them. I love John Warner, but we just beat the shit out of him."

"If we'd done what Obama wanted to do, we'd have been out by March 2008, and the surge could never have happened," McCain said.

I asked McCain if he thought Obama was a "defeatist."

"When he says 'End the war, whatever it takes to end it,' there's no doubt that--especially in the primary when he was appealing to the left of his party that felt betrayed by Hillary Clinton--that ending it was the first priority, just ending it. And that meant, whatever the consequences were. I'm not saying that he wanted defeat."

But, I asked him, didn't you say publicly that you believed Obama would rather lose the war than lose the election?

"I don't think he said we have to lose," McCain said, "but he did say in unequivocal terms, to standing ovations, 'I'll bring them home, we'll end it, we'll end it, I'll bring them home.'" (What McCain had actually said of Obama, just before this conversation, was: "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.")

There is no sense here that one may have other reasons, short of cowardice, for wanting out of Iraq. But this is like being back on the block. Your man tells you that he got jumped by some cats from across the tracks, so you and him go to war. The beef lasts for months, and then you find out he never got jumped to begin with. But when you pull out, he calls you a chump.

It doesn't matter that McCain is a 72-year old man. This is jungle law--and the jungle does not change. So there is very much an "I ain't no punk" vibe going on in the piece. In other words, McCain and his crew see us pulling out as a breaking of the American will. This, of course, ignores everything up to the actual fight. It says nothing about the complete and total absence of WMD. It says nothing about Guantanamo, about Abu Ghraib. It says nothing about selling Saddam and 9/11, about "greeted as liberators." In the McCain view of war, specifically this war, it doesn't matter if the government conned the country into going to war--the ultimate fault for a loss will lie with the weakness of the people. I want to be fair--McCain has been a long-time critic of the old Rumsfeld/Bush method of conducting war, but he has no critique of the war itself.

We are not that different, are we? Here is an inversion of the liberal argument that "Americans are stupid." From the McCain world-view, should we lose, it means "Americans are weak." Like the "Americans are stupid" argument, it deflects blame from the authors of policy to the people who don't believe them. What incredible cowardice and dishonesty, shifting blame to the people, in order to duck the hard work of interrogating yourself. McCain wants Obama to concede that the surge worked, and Obama--on pure principle--probably should. But McCain can't concede that knowing all we know now, we never would have went to war. Worse still, had we been more honest back in 2003, we never would have went to war. McCain wants the people to be strong and suffer the losses. But McCain, who wants to lead the people, can't even suffer himself and his own assumptions. In effect, he wants us to do what he can not, for the people to be stronger than the man who would lead them.