McCain Held All the Cards, So Bush Folded

Times Staff Writer

By refusing to agree to an all-out ban on the torture of terrorist suspects held in U.S. custody, President Bush in recent months was triggering political problems for his administration at home and around the world. It took the assistance of an unlikely ally -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a rival in the 2000 Republican primaries -- to give the White House the chance to repair the damage on both fronts.

The agreement reached Thursday on legislation prohibiting the inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody marked a rare capitulation by a president who campaigned for reelection based on his self-styled resolve when it came to the war on terrorism.

But it was also a recognition that, 13 months after a solid victory at the polls that seemed to put Bush’s White House in position to make transformational policy changes, the president is approaching his highest priority -- fighting terrorism -- from a position of political weakness.

And as GOP leaders are fighting among themselves over immigration, the war in Iraq and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, the crucial role played by McCain only accentuated his standing as a front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination in 2008.

“It was inevitable that McCain would be able to win on this one,” said Robert Ellsworth, a deputy Defense secretary under President Ford and a foreign policy advisor to 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole.


The agreement came after weeks of intense negotiations between McCain and national security advisor Stephen Hadley -- discussions that began only after it was clear that heavy lobbying by Vice President Dick Cheney to exempt, in some circumstances, the CIA from a torture ban was making no headway among lawmakers.

White House officials could not avoid the sting as both GOP-controlled houses of Congress backed McCain’s proposal with veto-proof majorities, even though Bush had threatened to make the issue cause for the first veto of his presidency.

The vote in the House on Wednesday came despite White House hopes that Bush’s recent series of speeches on the war in Iraq -- along with Thursday’s national elections there -- would boost his faltering approval ratings and give the president renewed moral authority on the fight against terrorism.

Several recent polls showed Bush’s approval ratings rising slightly, but most Republicans on Capitol Hill were clearly more impressed at the moment by McCain’s past -- a former POW in Vietnam who was himself tortured -- and his future as a potential president.

“When John McCain feels passionately about an issue, there are very few forces if any that can stop him, including the White House,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain aide who is now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Analysts said Bush also could not avoid pressure from overseas, particularly from European allies who had vehemently opposed what they viewed as a U.S. administration that backed the torture of terrorist suspects. Bush needs the support of European leaders, who have expressed dismay at revelations of secret U.S. prisons around the world, for his efforts to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan and to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Thursday’s agreement, experts say, marked a recognition by the White House that the U.S. image overseas mattered in world diplomacy, particularly in the aftermath of the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the denial of U.S. court trials to detainees held at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and headlines around the world about the secret prisons.

Bush and other White House officials have repeatedly said throughout the debate that the United States does not engage in torture, even as they argued for an exemption from a ban on torture in certain cases.

But Thursday’s deal demonstrated the realization that the administration’s attempts at nuance were not translating well in the court of world opinion, serving only to give critics the ability to argue that Bush backed torture after all.

The deal shows that the United States “upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are,” McCain said Thursday. The agreement will “help us enormously in winning the war for the hearts and minds of people throughout the world in the war on terror.”

But Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former advisor on European issues in the Clinton administration, said the diplomatic fallout was beyond repair, particularly given the White House’s stance in recent weeks opposing a torture ban.

“The damage done is so great that even McCain winning on this particular issue is not going to be enough to get us back on track,” Daalder said.

White House officials argued Thursday that they still got much of what they had sought -- language shielding interrogators from some prosecution.

Addressing reporters late in the day, Hadley said that most of the discussions had focused not on McCain’s proposal but on the language to protect interrogators, and he vehemently denied that the final deal essentially reflected what McCain initially had offered.

But Bush went out of his way to illustrate his newfound closeness with his onetime opponent.

The two sat in chairs in front of the Oval Office fireplace, a backdrop typically used for meetings with world leaders. “You’re a good man who honors the values of America,” Bush said.

After each man made his remarks, the president reached out his hand.

At first, the senator didn’t notice, but Bush persisted, holding his arm in the air until McCain grasped his hand with a firm shake.


Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.