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Dewayne Wickham: McCain still a soldier

Dewayne Wickham Gannett News Service

John McCain is more soldier than politician. He has gone from front-runner to long shot in the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination.

With McCain’s campaign bank account and standing in the polls plummeting, two top aides left the campaign, a development the senator surely hopes will break his free fall. That same day he took to the Senate floor to beseech colleagues to give President Bush’s Iraq “surge” more time to work:

“No one can be certain whether this new strategy, which remains in the early stages, can bring about greater stability. We can be sure that should the United States Senate seek to legislate an end to the strategy as it is just beginning, then we will fail for certain.”

The following day, a USA TODAY/Gallup poll revealed 62 percent of Americans think sending U.S. forces into Iraq was a mistake and just 22 percent believe the surge has improved conditions there. Seventy-one percent – including 42 percent of Republicans – favor pulling nearly all troops out by April.

McCain is haunted by this country’s retreat from Vietnam, a withdrawal he considers a military defeat.

“There is much to regret about America’s failure in Vietnam,” he once wrote. “The reasons are etched in black marble on the Washington Mall.”

McCain is a soldier’s soldier. While he’s been in Congress longer than the 22 years he spent in the Navy – more than five of those as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam – he has always been a warrior. He’s a fighter pilot who took off the uniform but in many ways never left the cockpit.

And, I’m convinced, he looks at what is happening in Iraq not as a politician but as a soldier. He measures the success of the surge, which is supposed to give Iraq’s squabbling political leaders time to bridge their differences and build a workable democracy, largely in military terms. He yearns for the military victory that evaded us in Vietnam.

But victory in Iraq must be forged by the country’s political leaders – who, according to a report released Thursday by the Bush administration, have failed to make satisfactory progress in many important areas toward creating a credible, democratic government.

Without meaningful political progress, the fighting among Iraq’s warring factions will continue – and victory of the kind McCain seeks will be as unobtainable in Iraq as it was in Vietnam.

Many Americans now understand this. That McCain doesn’t explains why his presidential campaign is in so much trouble.

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