McCain betting big on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

As America’s war in Iraq enters its sixth year, Sen. John McCain is hoping that his long effort to send thousands more U.S. troops -- a “surge” that has helped lower casualties -- will propel him into the White House.

But McCain’s record on Iraq is decidedly mixed. If the Arizona Republican proved prescient in his calls for a military buildup, many of his other predictions and prescriptions turned out wrong.

Before the war, McCain predicted a quick and easy victory, not a vicious insurgency. He issued dire warnings about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction but didn’t read the full 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that showed gaps in the intelligence.

Soon after the March 2003 invasion, however, he began criticizing the Bush administration’s management in Iraq and clashed repeatedly with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In mid-2003, he started advocating a larger U.S. force to battle the insurgency, a strategy the White House finally approved last year.

McCain did not publicly embrace or join the hard-core neoconservatives who pushed hardest to unleash the U.S. military against Baghdad before the war. But McCain backed many of the same policies.


He repeatedly urged backing Iraqi emigre groups, internal dissidents and other proxy forces to overthrow Hussein. His hawkish views carried weight as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Pentagon.

In 1998, he was among the cosponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act. The law set “regime change” in Baghdad as U.S. policy and mandated support to opposition groups seeking to overthrow the dictator.

Among the major beneficiaries was the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based exile group headed by Ahmed Chalabi.

The CIA had initially sponsored the group but broke with the controversial leader in 1997, saying he could not be trusted. Under the new law, Chalabi’s group received almost $33 million from the State Department, until U.S. officials found financial improprieties and ended the arrangement.

McCain and Chalabi met several times but were not close allies, aides to both men said. “Sen. McCain wasn’t pushing one group over another,” said Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s chief foreign policy advisor.

Asked by The Times this month if he regretted backing the 1998 law, which produced few discernible results other than bolstering Chalabi, McCain said he did not. Chalabi, though initially touted by neoconservatives as a future leader of Iraq, failed to garner significant support in elections.

McCain said that by 1998, U.N. sanctions against Iraq were “breaking down” and Hussein had defied numerous Security Council resolutions. “Every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction,” he added. “The policy was not successful.”

McCain cited the same reasoning when asked why he and nine other congressional leaders urged President Bush in a letter dated Dec. 6, 2001, to next target Iraq since the Taliban regime had collapsed in Afghanistan.

It is “imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe that we must directly confront Saddam sooner rather than later.”

Later that day, McCain told MSNBC that it is “possible, if not probable, that internal opposition forces can prevail over time.” Asked if it wouldn’t require 100,000 U.S. soldiers as occupation troops, McCain demurred. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t think so at all.”

Those predictions proved inaccurate. Worse, U.S. forces and local militias then were searching in vain for Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora redoubts of eastern Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence later concluded that Bin Laden had escaped the dragnet in early December, prompting criticism that the White House ignored the Al Qaeda chief to focus on Hussein.

McCain doesn’t buy it.

“I know of no one who believes attention to Iraq at that point diverted our attention from Tora Bora,” McCain said, when asked about the timing of the letter. “We should have put more boots on the ground there to apprehend [Bin Laden]. Everyone agrees. But I have no reason to believe that because we urged attention to Iraq, it had any tactical effect on the battleground.”

No Al Qaeda link

By the following fall, McCain offered unstinting support to the Bush administration as it sought to rally the nation for war. In September 2002, McCain told CNN that he expected “an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time.”

But McCain openly disputed Bush administration claims that Hussein appeared linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “I doubt seriously if there’s this close relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein,” he told CBS News in September 2002.

Postwar investigations, including the 9/11 Commission Report and a report this month financed by the Pentagon, found no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime.

In October 2002 McCain again rose to back the Bush administration when it sought congressional approval for a resolution to use force if necessary to disarm Iraq. The Iraqi tyrant, McCain repeatedly warned his colleagues, was “a clear and present danger” to U.S. security.

“He has developed stocks of germs and toxins in sufficient quantities to kill the entire population of the Earth multiple times,” McCain said, according to the Congressional Record. “He has placed weapons laden with these poisons on alert to fire at his neighbors within minutes, not hours, and has devolved authority to fire them to subordinates. He develops nuclear weapons with which he would hold his neighbors and us hostage.”

Like all but a few members of Congress, McCain read only the summary of the National Intelligence Estimate sent to Congress that month, according to longtime aide Mark Salter. Asked why, Salter said in an e-mail that the summary was “pretty informative.”

The summary, which was later declassified, warned with “high confidence” that Saddam was building a fierce array of illicit weapons. But CIA officials say the full classified text contained numerous caveats about the intelligence.

In fact, none of the weapons existed. After the invasion, the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group concluded that Hussein had abandoned or destroyed his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, a dozen years earlier.

When the invasion began, McCain told MSNBC that he had “no doubt” U.S. forces “will be welcomed as liberators” in Baghdad. But he changed his views after his first visit to Baghdad, in August 2003, as the insurgency was beginning.

Returning home, McCain began calling for the deployment of thousands more troops. The policy set him sharply at odds with the White House, his party and military commanders. Virtually alone in Congress, McCain pushed for a larger force with growing urgency over the next 3 1/2 years as casualties mounted and public support plummeted.

The Bush administration finally agreed to send nearly 30,000 additional troops early last year, bringing the current total to about 155,000. The so-called surge has helped curb both the sectarian slaughter and anti-U.S. attacks, according to the Pentagon.

“I give the guy a lot of credit on this issue,” said Kenneth Pollack, who headed Persian Gulf affairs in the Clinton White House and now works at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “He figured out the right answer. And the administration was dead set against it.”

Expertise challenged

But McCain’s claim to expertise came under attack Tuesday after he had completed a two-day visit to Iraq, his eighth tour of the war zone. During a news conference and in a separate radio interview, he charged that Iran was training Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. He quickly apologized after he was advised that the Teheran regime supports militant Shiite groups, not the rival Sunnis who make up Al Qaeda. “I’m sorry,” McCain said. “The Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.”

McCain’s aides said he merely misspoke when he mixed up America’s adversaries, but the Democratic National Committee immediately challenged his supposed knowledge and judgment on Iraq.

Democrats contend that McCain’s support for Bush’s unpopular war policies outweighs any differences he has had with them. In New Hampshire this month several dozen protesters loudly chanted “Bush, McCain, more of the same” when the presumptive Republican nominee arrived for a town-hall meeting in Exeter.

U.S. troops must remain until Iraq is secure, no matter how long that takes, McCain told the crowd. He ridiculed promises by his Democratic rivals, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, to quickly pull troops out. “A date for withdrawal would be a date for surrender,” he said.

The key to victory -- and probably the White House next fall -- McCain said, is whether American casualties start to rise again. If the surge is seen as failing, McCain warned, support for the war will evaporate.

“I am confident about this strategy,” he declared. “I will stick with it under any circumstances. But I don’t know if the American people will stick with it.”