WASHINGTON — Less than a year ago, the Bush administration's plan to send additional troops to Iraq had so few supporters that they could be counted on one hand, according to Fred Kagan, the co-author of a policy paper that evolved into the strategy.
In addition to himself and his wife, he said, there were Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, President Bush and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
"It was a very lonely time," Kagan, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recalled in an interview. McCain "really believed in the strategy and in General Petraeus. He went out there for us" and spoke up in support of the surge.
Now McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and his support for the surge suggests what U.S. policy in Iraq might look like in a McCain presidency.
McCain contends that the surge has demonstrated that with enough troops, the U.S. can pacify Iraq and support its nascent democratic government. The alternative, he said Friday in Norfolk, Va., "would have catastrophic consequences. I believe al Qaida would trumpet to the world that they had defeated the United States of America."
McCain long has been a proponent of a larger military presence in Iraq. A strong supporter of the invasion, he expressed concern within weeks of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue that the U.S. needed more troops. His appeals to the Defense Department were ignored, he said.
Despite that, he continued to vote in favor of funding the war.
On Jan. 3, McCain, 71 and a former Navy pilot, said that a 100-year U.S. presence in Iraq would be "fine with me" as long as Americans weren't being killed and al Qaida still posed a threat.
While McCain boasts of the surge's success, U.S. commanders in Iraq have been more circumspect, saying the drop in violence is tenuous and partly the result of a cease-fire by a radical Shiite Muslim militia.
Some U.S. officers have warned that the violence could return within days if U.S. troops left because Iraqi troops aren't ready to take over. They also warn that al Qaida continues to have a strong presence in some areas and that the U.S. tactics that have worked in Baghdad and in Anbar province may not work as well elsewhere.
A President McCain, though, might champion not only a continued large presence in Iraq, but also more vigorous U.S. intervention in other parts of the world where groups hostile to the United States thrive.
"Prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan are critical to defeating the threat posed by radical Islamic extremists, but are not the last battle in this global challenge. We are in a long war, and I am afraid the U.S. government is not adequately prepared to fight," McCain told an audience at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in September.
How McCain would prepare the U.S. to fight a wider war, however, isn't clear. The military has said it doesn't have enough troops to carry out any other major operations and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have depleted its equipment. In addition, U.S. allies such as Britain and Australia are unlikely to deploy additional troops, and enlarging the U.S. military would require either more defense spending or a military draft, both of which are politically unpalatable to many.
McCain, who was a POW for seven years in North Vietnam, hasn't always supported U.S. military intervention. He opposed sending troops to Lebanon in 1983, saying the U.S. couldn't stabilize the region. In August 1990, he supported the Gulf War resolution but opposed sending U.S. ground troops to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Now he espouses the belief that the U.S. can stabilize regions — with enough troops. The lesson of Vietnam and Iraq, he said in a May 2007 speech, is that "we must never again launch a military operation with too few troops to complete the mission and build a secure, stable and democratic peace. When we fight a war, we must fight to win."
McCain's speech at the Hoover Institution: http://www.johnmccain.com/informing/news/Speeches/43e821a2-ad70-495a-83b2-098638e67aeb.htm
McCain's Hudson Institute speech: http://www.cfr.org/publication/14336/john_mccains_speech_on_foreign_policy.html
John McCain's main campaign page: http://www.johnmccain.com/
McClatchy Newspapers 2008