Today McCain portrays himself as a critic of how the war was fought, but his criticism did not emerge until long after it was clear that the United States faced a grueling insurgency. From the fall of 2003 onward, against a growing chorus of critics who called for US forces to withdraw, McCain repeatedly called for more troops to secure "victory." By late 2006, when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for pulling out all combat brigades within fifteen months, McCain, Lieberman and a hardy band of neocons, led by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and joined by Cheney, persuaded Bush to escalate the war instead. Asked if McCain directly lobbied Bush to reject the ISG's recommendations, a McCain aide says, "There were many encounters with the President's senior advisers and with the President on this issue." Fred Kagan, the surge's author and Robert Kagan's brother, told McClatchy Newspapers, "It was a very lonely time. He went out there for us."
In January McCain famously said US forces might end up staying in Iraq for a hundred years. It's clear that for McCain the occupation is not just about winning the war but about turning Iraq into a regional base for extending US influence throughout the region. According to the original neocon conception of the war, as promoted by people like Perle and Michael Ledeen, Iraq was only a first step in redrawing the Middle East map. Gen. Wesley Clark said recently that on the eve of the war he was shown a Pentagon document that portrayed Iraq as the first in a series of operations to change regimes in Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Lebanon.
When The Nation asked Scheunemann why US forces would have to stay in Iraq so long, he explicitly linked their presence to the entire Middle East. "Iraq might be stable, but what about the region?" he responded. "Other countries could be in turmoil; other countries could be threatening Iraq. It could be an external threat that we need to have troops there for, à la South Korea, à la Japan." He added, "I understand your readers may think it's some sort of malevolent imperialist conspiracy." Conspiracy or not, it's clear that McCain sees our presence in Iraq as a permanent extension of US power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
McCain has made no secret of his belief that using force against Iran is the only way to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. "There is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that, my friends, is a nuclear-armed Iran," McCain said. "The regime must understand that they cannot win a showdown with the world." He supports tougher sanctions against Tehran, but critics note that implementing them would require Russia's consent. McCain's provocative anti-Russia stand, though, makes such a deal less than likely. And he rejects direct US-Iran talks.
In the end, McCain seems almost reflexively to favor the use of America's armed might. "He would employ military force to the exclusion of other options," says Larry Korb, a former Reagan Administration defense official. Scion of admirals (his father and grandfather), a combat pilot in Vietnam who continued to believe long after that war that it might have been won if the US military had been allowed free rein, McCain presents the image of a warrior itching for battle. He is the candidate of those Americans whose chief goal is an endless war against radical Islam and who'd like nothing more than for the Arizona senator to clamber figuratively into the cockpit once more. Like his former aide Marshall Wittman, currently a top aide to Senator Lieberman, McCain sees Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose interventionist President of the early twentieth century, as his role model. And that attracts neoconservatives.
"I'm an old-fashioned, Scoop Jackson--I guess you'd now say Joe Lieberman--Democrat, and he's a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and they're pretty close in their views, so substantively there's a lot of overlap between us," says James Woolsey, a former CIA director who's endorsed McCain and has campaigned with him this year. "I think John's style is very TR-like. It's very much about speaking softly but carrying a big stick."
We're still waiting for the "speaking softly" part. "There's going to be other wars," McCain warns. "I'm sorry to tell you, there's going to be other wars. We will never surrender, but there will be other wars."