McCain’s Shift on Iraq

Press ignored “swiftest possible conclusion” remark

The political press, distracted by Hillary’s comeback and Obama’s shift in strategy, seems to have missed—or largely ignored—what is arguably the biggest story to come out of Tuesday’s primaries.

After officially wrapping up the Republican nomination with big wins in Ohio and Texas, John McCain said this:

The next president must explain how he or she intends to bring [the Iraq] war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide; destabilizing the entire Middle East; enabling our adversaries in the region to extend their influence and undermine our security there; and emboldening terrorists to attack us elsewhere with weapons we dare not allow them to possess.

Declaring that, if elected president, he intends to “bring the Iraq war to the swiftest possible conclusion” is a notable change of emphasis for McCain. It contrasts sharply not only with his much-publicized (at least in Democratic circles) recent declaration that he’d be okay with U.S. troops being in Iraq for the next 1,000 years, but also with his more routine way of talking about the issue. This response to a question at a February GOP debate was typical of the tone he took throughout the primary campaign:

We have to continue because it’s not just the Iraqi vital national security interests that are at stake here, it’s America’s vital national security interests … [W]e must succeed, and we cannot fail, and I will be the last man standing if necessary.

To be clear, this isn’t a change in position on McCain’s part. He can plausibly argue that it’s always been his intention to end the war as soon as is possible without encouraging the dangers he goes on to list. Indeed, in his remarks Tuesday night, he seems to have taken care to avoid saying anything that would limit his freedom to continue the war once in office. But it’s hard to deny that Tuesday night’s remarks represented a major shift in tone and rhetoric—and one that, given the war’s unpopularity with the country at large, is clearly all about general-election positioning. Considering the central part of his campaign McCain has made his steadfast support for the war, that’s newsworthy.

Of course, adjusting rhetoric is something all candidates do (anyone think the Democratic nominee won’t start downplaying his or her calls for a quick withdrawal once the general-election campaign begins?). But it’s the press’s job to notice—and it didn’t. Since McCain’s speech, the only reference to the shift that we could find in the major media was a passing remark in the New York Sun.

To be fair, there’s been a lot going on since Tuesday night, and some in the political press were no doubt simply diverted by the need to cover a fascinating Democratic race. But is it possible that the media missed McCain’s new rhetorical direction in part because reporters’ basic assumption about the Arizonan is that he’s a straight-talker? As a result, could they be less likely to notice when, like all politicians, he fails to live up to that reputation?

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.