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Roger Cohen: A Center Called McCain

By Roger Cohen

Although John McCain is too conservative, and his temperament and age raise concerns, he is too honorable to dismiss at a moment so critical to America’s standing in the world.

US Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigned Wednesday in South Carolina.
REUTERS

US Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigned Wednesday in South Carolina.

Nobody’s been right all the time on Iraq, but Senator John McCain has been less wrong than most. He knew a bungled war when he saw one and pressed early for increased force levels. He backed the injection last year of some 30,000 troops, a surge that has produced results.

Modest results, yes, and violence has blipped upward again this month, and, yes, Iraqi political progress is slow. But progress is always slow when a population terrorized over decades is freed. Violent attacks were down 60 percent in December from their 2007 high and refugees have begun to go home.

A trickle homeward, yes, a speck in the ocean of 2.2 million Iraqis forced into exile, but tens of thousands of people don’t return unless they see hope. That’s why more than 4 million Afghans have gone home since the Taliban’s fall.

Yes, I know, the myriad Iraqi dead won’t return.

McCain was politically dead six months ago, his campaign undone by his backing of President Bush’s Iraq policy. His remarkable resurgence, which has put him in the lead among Republican candidates, according to recent polls, is one measure of the Iraq shift.

That shift has unsettled the political ground. With Iraq looking less hopeless, McCain has scored points for being consistent and forthright on the war -- a quality shared only by Barack Obama (in his opposition to it) among leading candidates.

At the same time, an economy getting a subprime pummeling has nudged Iraq from the center of Americans’ concerns. The victory of McCain’s rival Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary came in a state craving quick fixes for 7.4 percent unemployment. McCain didn’t offer that.

So, three states have chosen distinct Republican candidates, with a social conservative, Mike Huckabee, triumphing in Iowa; McCain taking New Hampshire with independent support; and Romney using his CEO image to win Michigan. Bush’s party is split: God, heroic nation and Wall Street are out of sync.

It’s been widely assumed that the Democratic Party’s shoot-itself-in-the-foot capacity, evident in 2004, would have to hit overdrive to wrest defeat from victory this year. These Republican splits comfort the notion of inevitable Democratic triumph.

But, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute noted, “There’s no doubt that the one Republican candidate that leaves most Democrats quaking is McCain. They’re uneasy about the breadth of his appeal.”

McCain’s attractiveness to independents, between 10 percent and 30 percent of the vote nationally, involves policy and personality. His readiness to take on global warming, back immigration and demand legal representation for war on terror detainees give him centrist appeal at the price of opposition within his party.

But McCain does not win the wavering as policy wonk; he’s flesh and blood. The straight-talking survivor of more than five years of Vietnamese imprisonment is at home in his own skin in a way Bush will never be. McCain has a temper but no need to be macho to convince. He walks without his arms clenched.

None of this would matter if McCain’s support of the Iraq war had condemned him. But it now appears that is not the case. In New Hampshire, where independents were an important factor, McCain’s support was broad. He tends to defy categorization.

But he’s categorical in his opposition to tyranny. Saddam Hussein, as Nick Cohen, a British author, observes in his important book on liberal hypocrisy in Iraq called “What’s Left?,” represented “not a tin-pot dictator but real Fascism,” complete with a “messianic one-party state” and “armies that swept out in unprovoked wars” and “secret policemen who organized the gassing of ‘impure’ races.”

This death-and-genocide machine killed about 400,000 Iraqis in internal persecutions and another million or so people in Iran and Kuwait. When you’ve been imprisoned, as McCain has, you know what terror means: death of spirit, soul, life itself.

Saddam’s nightmare ended in a misbegotten, mishandled, bloody and costly war. Does Bush’s fraudulent, blunder-ridden rush to war matter more than the prizing of 26 million human beings from a sadistic tyrant who modeled himself on Hitler and Stalin?

That core question has seldom, if ever, been dignified by honest debate through all the verbal Iraq wars fought on US soil. I still believe Iraq’s freedom outweighs its terrible price. So does McCain. In the looming battle between the Baptist minister, the corporate whiz and the war hero -- and perhaps Mr. 9/11 -- to unite the frayed strands of Republicanism, McCain now has a fighting chance.

If he’s nominated, some lines would be blurred in the White House fight. McCain’s not my choice for president. He’s too conservative across a range of social questions, and his temperament and age raise concerns. But he’s too honorable to dismiss at a moment so critical to US standing in the world.

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