WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain arrived late at his Senate office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. “This is war,” he murmured to his aides. The sound of scrambling fighter planes rattled the windows, sending a tremor of panic through the room.
Within hours, Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.
“There is a system out there or network, and that network is going to have to be attacked,” Mr. McCain said the next morning on ABC News. “It isn’t just Afghanistan,” he added, on MSNBC. “I don’t think if you got bin Laden tomorrow that the threat has disappeared,” he said on CBS, pointing toward other countries in the Middle East.
Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”
Now, as Mr. McCain prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination, his response to the attacks of Sept. 11 opens a window onto how he might approach the gravest responsibilities of a potential commander in chief. Like many, he immediately recalibrated his assessment of the unseen risks to America’s security. But he also began to suggest that he saw a new “opportunity” to deter other potential foes by punishing not only Al Qaeda but also Iraq.
“Just as Sept. 11 revolutionized our resolve to defeat our enemies, so has it brought into focus the opportunities we now have to secure and expand our freedom,” Mr. McCain told a NATO conference in Munich in early 2002, urging the Europeans to join what he portrayed as an all but certain assault on Saddam Hussein. “A better world is already emerging from the rubble.”
To his admirers, Mr. McCain’s tough response to Sept. 11 is at the heart of his appeal. They argue that he displayed the same decisiveness again last week in his swift calls to penalize Russia for its incursion into Georgia, in part by sending peacekeepers to police its border.
His critics charge that the emotion of Sept. 11 overwhelmed his former cool-eyed caution about deploying American troops without a clear national interest and a well-defined exit, turning him into a tool of the Bush administration in its push for a war to transform the region.
“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”
Whether through ideology or instinct, though, Mr. McCain began making his case for invading Iraq to the public more than six months before the White House began to do the same. He drew on principles he learned growing up in a military family and on conclusions he formed as a prisoner in North Vietnam. He also returned to a conviction about “the common identity” of dangerous autocracies as far-flung as Serbia and North Korea that he had developed consulting with hawkish foreign policy thinkers to help sharpen the themes of his 2000 presidential campaign.
While pushing to take on Saddam Hussein, Mr. McCain also made arguments and statements that he may no longer wish to recall. He lauded the war planners he would later criticize, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. (Mr. McCain even volunteered that he would have given the same job to Mr. Cheney.) He urged support for the later-discredited Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi’s opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, and echoed some of its suspect accusations in the national media. And he advanced misleading assertions not only about Mr. Hussein’s supposed weapons programs but also about his possible ties to international terrorists, Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, Mr. McCain’s supporters note that he became an early critic of the administration’s execution of the occupation, and they credit him with pushing the troop “surge” that helped bring stability. Mr. McCain, though, stands by his support for the war and expresses no regrets about his advocacy.
In written answers to questions, he blamed “Iraq’s opacity under Saddam” for any misleading remarks he made about the peril it posed.
The Sept. 11 attacks “demonstrated the grave threat posed by a hostile regime, possessing weapons of mass destruction, and with reported ties to terrorists,” Mr. McCain wrote in an e-mail message on Friday. Given Mr. Hussein’s history of pursuing illegal weapons and his avowed hostility to the United States, “his regime posed a threat we had to take seriously.” The attacks were still a reminder, Mr. McCain added, of the importance of international action “to prevent outlaw states — like Iran today — from developing weapons of mass destruction.”
Mr. McCain has been debating questions about the use of military force far longer than most. He grew up in a family that had sent a son to every American war since 1776, and international relations were a staple of the McCain family dinner table. Mr. McCain grew up listening to his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., deliver lectures on “The Four Ocean Navy and the Soviet Threat,” closing with a slide of an image he considered the ultimate factor in the balance of power: a soldier marching through a rice paddy with a rifle at his shoulder.
“To quote Sherman, war is all hell and we need to fight it out and get it over with and that is when the killing stops,” recalled Joe McCain, Senator McCain’s younger brother.
Vietnam, for Senator McCain, reinforced those lessons. He has often said he blamed the Johnson administration’s pause in bombing for prolonging the war, and he credited President Richard M. Nixon’s renewed attacks with securing his release from a North Vietnamese prison. He has made the principle that the exercise of military power sets the bargaining table for international relations a consistent theme of his career ever since, and in his 2002 memoir he wrote that one of his lifelong convictions was “the imperative that American power never retreat in response to an inferior adversary’s provocation.”
But Mr. McCain also took away from Vietnam a second, restraining lesson: the necessity for broad domestic support for any military action. For years he opposed a string of interventions — in Lebanon, Haiti, Somalia, and, for a time, the Balkans — on the grounds that the public would balk at the loss of life without clear national interests. “The Vietnam thing,” he recently said.
In the late 1990s, however, while he was beginning to consider his 2000 presidential race, he started rebalancing his view of the needs to project American strength and to sustain public support. The 1995 massacre of 5,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica under NATO’s watch struck at his conscience, he has said, and in addition to America’s strategic national interests — in that case, the future and credibility of NATO — Mr. McCain began to speak more expansively about America’s moral obligations as the only remaining superpower.
His aides say he later described the American air strikes in Bosnia in 1996 and in Kosovo in 1999 as a parable of political leadership: Mr. McCain, Senator Bob Dole and others had rallied Congressional support for the strikes despite widespread public opposition, then watched approval soar after the intervention helped to bring peace.
“Americans elect their leaders to make these kinds of judgments,” Mr. McCain said in the e-mail message.
It was during the Balkan wars that Mr. McCain and his advisers read a 1997 article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page by William Kristol and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard — both now Op-Ed page columnists at The New York Times — promoting the idea of “national greatness” conservatism, defined by a more activist agenda at home and a more muscular role in the world.
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘eureka’ moment, but there was a sense that this is where we are headed and this is what we are trying to articulate and they have already done a lot of the work,” said John Weaver, a former McCain political adviser. “And, quite frankly, from a crass political point of view, we were in the making-friends business. The Weekly Standard represented a part of the primary electorate that we could get.”
Soon Mr. McCain and his aides were consulting regularly with the circle of hawkish foreign policy thinkers sometimes referred to as neoconservatives — including Mr. Kristol, Robert Kagan and Randy Scheunemann, a former aide to Mr. Dole who became a McCain campaign adviser — to develop the senator’s foreign policy ideas and instincts into the broad themes of a presidential campaign. (In his e-mail message, Mr. McCain noted that he had also consulted with friends like Henry A. Kissinger, known for a narrower view of American interests.)
One result was a series of speeches in which Mr. McCain called for “rogue state rollback.” He argued that disparate regional troublemakers, including Iraq, North Korea and Serbia, bore a common stamp: they were all autocracies. And as such, he contended, they were more likely to export terrorism, spread dangerous weapons, or start ethnic conflicts. In an early outline of what would become his initial response to the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. McCain argued that “swift and sure” retribution against any one of the rogue states was an essential deterrent to any of the others. But Mr. McCain’s advisers and aides say his “rogue state” speeches stopped short of the most sweeping international agenda put forth by Mr. Kristol, Mr. Kagan and their allies. Mr. McCain explicitly disavowed direct military action merely to advance American values, foreswearing any “global crusade” of interventions in favor of relying on covert and financial support for internal opposition groups.
As an example, he could point to his 1998 sponsorship of the Iraqi Liberation Act, which sought to direct nearly $100 million to Iraqis who hoped to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, also endorsed the ouster of Mr. Hussein.
Mr. McCain said then that he doubted the United States could muster the political will to use ground troops to remove the Iraqi dictator any time soon. “It was much easier when Saddam Hussein was occupying Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia,” the senator told Fox News in November 1998. “We’d have to convince the American people that it’s worth again the sacrifice of American lives, because that would also be part of the price.”
Mr. McCain spent the afternoon of Sept. 11 in a young aide’s studio apartment near the Capitol. There was no cable television, nothing but water in the kitchen, and the hallway reminded him of an old boxing gym. Evacuated from his office but stranded by traffic, he could not resist imagining himself at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. “There are not enough Secret Service agents in the world to keep me away from Washington and New York at a time like this,” Mr. McCain told an adviser.
Over the next days and weeks, however, Mr. McCain became almost as visible as he would have been as president. Broadcasters rushed to him as a patriotic icon and reassuring voice, and for weeks he was ubiquitous on the morning news programs, Sunday talk shows, cable news networks, and even late-night comedy shows.
In the spotlight, he pushed rogue state rollback one step further, arguing that the United States should go on the offensive as a warning to any other country that might condone such an attack. “These networks are well-embedded in some of these countries,” Mr. McCain said on Sept. 12, listing Iraq, Iran and Syria as potential targets of United States pressure. “We’re going to have to prove to them that we are very serious, and the price that they will pay will not only be for punishment but also deterrence.”
Although he had campaigned for President Bush during the 2000 general election, he was still largely frozen out of the White House because of animosities left over from the Republican primary. But after Mr. Bush declared he would hold responsible any country condoning terrorism, Mr. McCain called his leadership “magnificent” and his national security team the strongest “that has ever been assembled.” A few weeks later, Larry King of CNN asked whether he would have named Mr. Rumsfeld and Colin L. Powell to a McCain cabinet. “Oh, yes, and Cheney,” Mr. McCain answered, saying he, too, would have offered Mr. Cheney the vice presidency.
Even during the heat of the war in Afghanistan, Mr. McCain kept an eye on Iraq. To Jay Leno in mid-September, Mr. McCain said he believed “some other countries” had assisted Osama bin Laden, going on to suggest Iraq, Syria and Iran as potential suspects. In October 2001, when an Op-Ed page column in The New York Times speculated that Iraq, Russia or some other country might bear responsibility for that month’s anthrax mailings, Mr. McCain interrupted a question about Afghanistan from David Letterman on that night’s “Late Show.” “The second phase is Iraq,” Mr. McCain said, adding, “Some of this anthrax may — and I emphasize may — have come from Iraq.” (The Federal Bureau of Investigation says it came from a federal government laboratory in Maryland.) By October, United States and foreign intelligence agencies had said publicly that they doubted any cooperation between Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda, noting Al Qaeda’s opposition to such secular nationalists. American intelligence officials soon declared that Mr. Hussein had not supported international terrorism for nearly a decade.
But when the Czech government said that before the attacks, one of the 9/11 hijackers had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official, Mr. McCain seized the report as something close to a smoking gun. “The evidence is very clear,” he said three days later, in an Oct. 29 television interview. (Intelligence agencies quickly cast doubt on the meeting.)
Frustrated by the dearth of American intelligence about Iraq, Mr. McCain’s aides say, he had long sought to learn as much as he could from Iraqi opposition figures in exile, including Mr. Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Over the years, Mr. McCain often urged support for the group, saying it had “significant support, in my view, inside Iraq.”
After Sept. 11, Mr. Chalabi’s group said an Iraqi emissary had once met with Osama bin Laden, and brought forward two Iraqi defectors who described terrorist training camps and biological weapons efforts. At times, Mr. McCain seemed to echo their accusations, citing the “two defectors” in a television interview and attesting to “credible reports of involvement between Iraqi administration officials, Iraqi officials and the terrorists.”
But United States intelligence officials had doubts about Mr. Chalabi at the time and have since discredited his group. In 2006, Mr. McCain acknowledged to The New Republic that he had been “too enamored with the I.N.C.” In his e-mail message, though, he said he never relied on the group for information about Iraq’s weapons program.
At a European security conference in February 2002, when the Bush administration still publicly maintained that it had made no decision about moving against Iraq, Mr. McCain described an invasion as all but certain. “A terrorist resides in Baghdad,” he said, adding, “A day of reckoning is approaching.”
Regime change in Iraq in addition to Afghanistan, he argued, would compel other sponsors of terrorism to mend their ways, “accomplishing by example what we would otherwise have to pursue through force of arms.”
Finally, as American troops massed in the Persian Gulf in early 2003, Mr. McCain grew impatient, his aides say, concerned that the White House was failing to act as the hot desert summer neared. Waiting, he warned in a speech in Washington, risked squandering the public and international support aroused by Sept. 11. “Does anyone really believe that the world’s will to contain Saddam won’t eventually collapse as utterly as it did in the 1990s?” Mr. McCain asked.
In retrospect, some of Mr. McCain’s critics now accuse him of looking for a pretext to justify the war. “McCain was hell-bent for leather: ‘Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, we have got to teach him, let’s send a message to the other people in the Middle East,’ ” said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
But Mr. McCain, in his e-mail message, said the reason he had supported the war was the evolving threat from Mr. Hussein.
“I believe voters elect their leaders based on their experience and judgment — their ability to make hard calls, for instance, on matters of war and peace,” he wrote. “It’s important to get them right.”
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