Did McCain Hedge His Bets?

July 27, 2008 9:52 p.m.

February 20th, 2007, Salon.com

A war veteran and presidential contender for 2008, McCain seemed to be squarely in the president’s corner during the Senate debate.

In fact, McCain has increasingly hedged his position on the surge, showing full support for Bush’s plan one moment and then pivoting at another moment to point out grievous tactical errors he says are being made by the White House. For example, in front of a conservative audience at the American Enterprise Institute in January, McCain said that while the president was sending the minimum number of soldiers to Baghdad needed to make the plan work, the plan would indeed work. Then, on the Senate floor on Feb. 8, he announced that he was “very doubtful that we have enough troops” there to get the job done. Furthermore, while Bush agreed to an unconventional arrangement in which command for the surge will be split between U.S. and Iraqi military leaders, McCain warned the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 23 that he knew of “no successful military operation where you have dual command.” He has also suggested the Iraqis might not contribute adequately in the operation to secure Baghdad.

Political observers say McCain isn’t just worried about military tactics. By simultaneously endorsing the surge and harshly criticizing certain aspects of the Bush plan as potentially disastrous, McCain appears to be hedging his bets should the surge fail. “He is looking for an exit strategy if it does not work,” said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University. “It says: ‘You just did not do it right, Mr. President.'”

McCain’s support for the escalation is consistent with his long-held belief that the United States has been short on troops in Iraq from the beginning. But some political observers have noted that it also buttresses McCain’s recent, sometimes awkward efforts to cozy up to the GOP’s conservative base before the upcoming Republican primaries.

It could be a risky gambit, pitting him against the broader general electorate, which, polls show, is opposed to the surge. “McCain is really in a tough position at the moment,” noted Wayne. “If the surge fails and McCain is attached to it, it is going to be very difficult to run in the general election.”

At times, McCain has come across as one of the Senate’s harshest critics of the surge plan’s tactics, stopping just short of predicting failure in Baghdad. He has certainly been far more critical of its tactical aspects than Bush’s other main ally in the Senate, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, who has stuck to unflagging endorsements of Bush’s war policy.

Should Bush’s plan fail, observers say, McCain is positioning himself as the man who would have had the right plan to win the war. “That is the way he is going to sell it,” explained Michele Swers, a political science professor at Georgetown. “He would have done it right.”

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