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Trip casts McCain as agent of both continuity and change

Sen. John McCain arrives last week in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
REUTERS/Uriel Sinai
Sen. John McCain arrives last week in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

While Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting it out back home for every last delegate and superdelegate, Sen. John McCain spent last week in five Mideast and European countries meeting with international leaders and trying to look presidential.

Billed as a fact-finding trip for the Senate Armed Services Committee and not a political trip, McCain was accompanied by two of his closest supporters, Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. He also held a fundraiser in London.

Whatever the stated purpose, the trip appeared to be an attempt to cast McCain as a world leader while at the same time demonstrating that he is different from an unpopular incumbent even though they agree on many issues, particularly the war in Iraq.

Michael Shear explained in the Washington Post: “McCain walked a fine line on Iraq and other issues as the all-but-certain Republican nominee confronted perhaps the central dilemma of his presidential campaign: the question of what role Bush and the legacy of the past seven years will play in his campaign for the White House. At home, the answer may determine how well McCain succeeds in keeping his Republican base happy while also attracting the independents and Democrats he will need to win in November. And, win or lose, it will shape his image abroad, where a debate is already raging over whether a McCain presidency would be a de facto third term for the embattled incumbent.

Bellicose, with a desire to heal

“In every city, foreign leaders and journalists attempted to reconcile what they deemed the two sides to McCain: his bellicose rhetoric on Iran and North Korea — which is more aggressive than Bush’s — and his desire to heal the rift with Europe’s leaders by closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending what he regards to be the use of torture by American forces and reducing pollution.”

Michael Cooper reported in the New York Times that the trip “offered him the chance to test his hope that he could repair America’s tattered reputation by shifting course on some of the policies that have alienated its allies, in areas like global warming and torture. But he is making his foray even as he embraces what much of the world sees as the most hated remnant of the Bush presidency: the war in Iraq.”

McCain struck a conciliatory tone in his meetings with British and French leaders, Cooper said, including writing an op-ed article for leading European newspapers in which the senator said, “We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies.”

But, Cooper added, “some analysts question whether a new tone, however welcome, and the adoption of a few policies that are more in line with the rest of the world would be enough by themselves to improve America’s image, given the searing unpopularity of the Iraq war — which Mr. McCain strongly supports — in much of the world.”

Whoever becomes president has much work to do to restore American standing in Europe and the Middle East. The Times cited a Pew research study that said only 51 percent of the British, America’s closest allies, and 39 percent of the French viewed the United States favorably, down significantly from before the Iraq war.

An embarrassing misstep

A hectic transcontinental trip can also be risky for a politician who sometimes is so conversant with reporters that he misstates the facts. Such was the case when McCain said more than once in a stop in Jordan just after visiting Iraq that Iran was training al-Qaida fighters in Iran and then sending them back to fight in Iraq. After Lieberman whispered in his ear, McCain corrected himself, saying that Iran, a Shiite country, was training extremists, but not Sunni al-Qaida fighters.

The mistaken statement drew a caustic comment from the Guardian: “Mr. McCain made a dismayingly ignorant remark yesterday about Shia Iran’s supposed support for Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq that seriously challenges his much-touted claim to be a great foreign policy expert. The last thing that both America and the world need right now is another blundering second-rater as US commander-in-chief….”

“Mr. McCain should not be dismissed as Bush mark two, however. He is made of sterner stuff and he has a lifetime of engagement with the outside world — and the scars to prove it — that gives him the moral seriousness Mr. Bush so lacks. Mr. McCain is not one to draw back from the use of U.S. armed force, but he has consistently been smarter about its deployment than the Bush administration. He is also wholly clear about the need to rebuild America’s reputation in the world and about the importance of treating allies seriously. If, as some urge, he puts Condoleezza Rice on his ticket in November, he could be both electable and formidable. Neither of those things, though, makes him right.”

McCain visited with leaders in Israel as well as with families affected by Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. But the most serious threat Israel faces is the one from a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, argued the Jerusalem Post: “The stark truth is that America is not currently winning against Iran, and cannot win unless there is more Western unity behind an effective policy, rather than behind empty rhetoric and weak sanctions. The great challenge facing any presidential candidate is to show how he or she will galvanize Western strength and unity to achieve victory in the war against totalitarian Islamism.”

Mideast worries about continuity
Meanwhile, Reuters was reporting from Beirut, across the border from Israel, that “Arabs keen to see the end of George W. Bush’s presidency fear that a win for likely Republican candidate John McCain will bring little change to U.S. policies they blame for destabilizing the Middle East. For Arab politicians who have gained from U.S. policy in countries including Iraq and Lebanon, continuity may be a good thing. But Bush’s many critics in the Arab world worry that McCain will continue current U.S. policies, which they fault for unleashing chaos in Iraq and providing unflinching support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.”

The long-term effect of McCain’s trip on the presidential campaign will not be known for months, of course. Despite his foreign-policy experience, his many trips abroad and his personal relationships with world leaders, McCain’s fate may depend on events entirely outside his control. Glen Johnson of the Associated Press quoted foreign-policy expert Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution as saying: “I have a hard time seeing how he (McCain) wins if Iraq falls apart between now and November, and I have a hard time seeing how the Democrats use Iraq against him over that time if things continue to improve.”

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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