I took part in a blogger conference on my lunchbreak today with Senator John McCain on the topic of Iraq. McCain, who gave a speech on Iraq at the Virginia Military Institute earlier today, wanted to reach out to New Media sources for his perspective on the progress of the war, the critical nature of our effort there, and the need to persevere until we succeed.
McCain did not pull many punches in this call. Speaking as bluntly as I have heard in some time, he acknowledged the credibility deficit of the Pentagon and White House on the war. Saying that “too often, we misled the American people in the past” about deadenders, mission accomplished, and so on, McCain said that the press has become too reluctant to report actual progress in Iraq. He feels that bloggers and radio hosts can help get real information to the American people and help encourage the nation to remain tenacious.
Who does he blame for the credibility gap? McCain pointed out that President Bush has to accept the ultimate responsibility for that as well as for the faulty strategy used up to this year in attempting to pacify the insurgencies. The Senator says that he is pleased with the direction the White House has taken this year and the energy with which they have pursued it. He faulted the White House for not having regular press conferences dedicated to discussing the progress in Iraq in clear and objective terms, which McCain feels would have disarmed much of the criticism, especially this year.
Ultimately, though, he blames Donald Rumsfeld for shrinking the military and using too light of a footprint in post-invasion Iraq -- a position McCain has consistently maintained for over three years. He also blames Generals Casey and Sanchez for their roles in supporting Rumsfeld's strategies. He believes that General Petraeus, a "charismatic" commander, has the right approach and the skills to succeed in Iraq. McCain also praised Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert Gates, and told us that Pentagon morale has increased substantially since Rumsfeld's departure.
Progress has been made in Baghdad and Anbar since the surge, McCain insisted. Tribal sheikhs have lined up with the US for several reasons. Chief among them, al-Qaeda in Iraq has used "brutal and cruel" tactics in the region to fight their war without regard to the native Iraqis. Anbar tribes see the US attempting to rebuild Iraq and AQI as attempting to destroy it, and they see their interests with the West rather than with the jihadists.
I asked the Senator whether Moqtada al-Sadr's new orders for the Mahdi Army to attack American forces could cause a collapse of the Maliki government. McCain thinks Sadr is mostly bluffing; he waited too long and has not made a personal appearance for too long, and a defeat at the hands of the American and Iraqi forces would finish him. Joking that he was "digging for the pony here," he predicted that Sadr would back down as he has in the past rather than take that big of a gamble.
We will know within a few months whether the surge will succeed, McCain told us. By that time, we can see whether Maliki has the political strength and will to make the necessary adjustments. If the US cannot succeed in Iraq, McCain believes that David Petraeus has the strength of character to tell that to the President and then to the American people. Petraeus believes we can prevail, McCain told us, and that we must.
Final observations: McCain does well in this format. He speaks with a disarming humility that might surprise some, and with an honest passion that impresses. He should try to do more of these in the future.