McCain Signals Distance From Bush, Neocons

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Senator McCain’s unusually blunt attack on the Bush administration yesterday, including a claim that President Bush and other top officials led Americans to believe that the Iraq war would be “some kind of day at the beach,” is fueling suspicions that the Arizona senator and potential 2008 presidential candidate is seeking to straddle rival foreign policy camps in the Republican Party.

During a visit to the Midwest, Mr. McCain disapprovingly quoted a series of optimistic Iraq-related statements advanced by Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

“‘Stuff happens,’ ‘Mission accomplished,’ ‘Last throes,’ ‘A few dead-enders.’ I’m just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be,” Mr. McCain said, according to the Associated Press.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required,” he said during a campaign stop in Columbus for Senator DeWine of Ohio. The administration’s rosy talk “contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because we were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking,” Mr. McCain said.

The senator’s critical comments came on the heels of a New York Times article Monday about his brain trust. The accoount raised some eyebrows in foreign policy circles for giving prominence to three former government officials seen to be at odds with some of Mr. Bush’s policies abroad: the secretary of state during Mr. Bush’s first term, Colin Powell; Mr. Powell’s deputy at the State Department, Richard Armitage, and the national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft.

Mr. Scowcroft opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has called the current American effort there a “failing venture.” Messrs. Powell and Armitage clashed privately with neoconservatives in the administration but have been more circumspect in their public remarks over Iraq.

A graphic accompanying the Times story included photos of Messrs. Powell, Armitage, and Scowcroft alongside two leading members of the neoconservative camp, a magazine editor and television commentator, William Kristol, and a columnist and think tank policy analyst, Robert Kagan.

“At first it’s surprising, but actually I don’t think it is,” a foreign policy scholar at the School for Advanced International Studies of John Hopkins University, James Mann, said. “It represents two different elements of McCain’s foreign policy constituency.”

Mr. Mann said the divisions among the advisers go back years before the Bush administration. “They clearly disagree with each other,” he said. “Scowcroft and Powell took the lead in opposing American intervention in Bosnia, and neoconservative support for McCain goes back to the Balkans and Bosnia.”

The foreign policy chief for Mr. McCain’s presidential bid in 2000, Randy Scheunemann, said that while the senator consults widely, his policy stands track more with the neoconservatives than with the so-called realists.

“I don’t think, given where John has been for the last four or five years on the Iraq war and foreign policy issues, anyone would mistake Scowcroft for a close adviser,” Mr. Scheunemann said. He said if Mr. Scowcroft was a close adviser, Mr. McCain “was not taking the advice. Speaking out against the Saudis and the Chinese is not something you would associate with Scowcroft, but it is something you would associate with Kristol or Kagan.”

Mr. Kristol told The New York Sun that he was also struck by the Times’ photo array of the senator’s foreign policy stable. “Those faces are pretty disparate views, I’d say,” the editor of the Weekly Standard quipped. He called the story “an amusing journalistic trope” and noted that he also consulted with other 2008 hopefuls, such as Governor Romney of Massachusetts, Mayor Giuliani, and a former House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

The author of the Times story, John Broder, stood by its accuracy. The Times graphic carried a disclaimer that many of those depicted “would most likely play no role in any McCain candidacy.”

In an essay for this month’s Playboy, Mr. McCain wrote, “Fundamentally, I agree with the neoconservatives because I believe we can do a better job of helping people achieve democracy and freedom. “However, he said serious questions exist about whether neoconservatives exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq.

While generally supportive of the Iraq war, Mr. McCain has clashed with the war’s leading architect, Mr. Rumsfeld. In late 2004, the senator said he had “no confidence” in the secretary’s leadership.

Last year, Mr. McCain pressed, over objections by Mr. Cheney and others, for a ban on “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” of prisoners by American military personnel and agents. Mr. Bush eventually signed the so-called torture ban with some reservations.

In earlier years, Mr. McCain publicly trumpeted the eclecticism of his foreign policy views. As a candidate in the Republican presidential primary contest in 2000, the senator was asked what he would do first if elected.

“The first thing that I would do is call in John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, Joe Biden, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Dick Lugar, Chuck Hagel, and several others and say, ‘We’ve got to get foreign policy, national security issues back on track,'” Mr. McCain told the Detroit News.

The senator and his aides could have a variety of motivations for floating the names of people in the realist camp. Mentioning them could give some the impression that Mr. McCain, as the putative front-runner, is monopolizing nearly all the party’s foreign policy talent. Public nods to Mr. Powell might also be well-advised, since he is seen as an attractive potential running mate for whoever gets the nomination in 2008.

An aide to Mr. Powell, Margaret Cifrino, said in response to a query that he and the senator have been close for many years. “They speak frequently and offer each other advice,” Ms. Cifrino said. Mr. Powell “is not aligned with any political campaign,” she added.

Mr. Mann said Messrs. Powell and Armitage have an admiration for the senator that transcends policy and dates back to his heroism as a Vietnam War prisoner. “Their affinity for McCain is long-standing,” the scholar said.


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