McCain's shrewd military maneuver

April 05, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain has made a shrewd political move by delaying the official announcement of his candidacy for president because it would not be "appropriate" during the crisis in Kosovo.

At the most obvious level, the Arizona Republican understood that no candidate is likely to earn the full attention of either the press or the voters right now. The 2000 election campaign seems a long way off.

But Senator McCain also has set himself apart from the other 10 active candidates for the Republican nomination by being willing to do more than simply criticize President Clinton and declare "support" for the troops put in harm's way by his policies. Rather than carping about the decisions Mr. Clinton already has made, Mr. McCain has put himself on record as willing to use ground troops if that is the only way to resolve the situation in the Balkans short of simply withdrawing.

By taking that position, he has effectively advanced himself as a leading voice, perhaps the leading voice, among Republicans on this issue. His willingness to confront the complexity of the problem directly is a sharp contrast with the cautious responses of his rivals.

This is, of course, the advice most of them seem to be getting from their strategists. Put yourself on record behind our young people in uniform but let Mr. Clinton find his own way out of this quagmire. It's an old rule in politics. If your opponents are self-destructing, don't interfere.

What the Republicans may be secretly hoping is that the administration will be seen as such a failure in this enterprise that not just Mr. Clinton but Vice President Al Gore will be compromised. And if the president "breaks his promise" on ground troops, Mr. Gore will be similarly guilty.

For the White House, Mr. McCain's initiative on the use of ground troops could be a lifeline, even though the most recent opinion survey shows 57 percent of Americans opposed. The question is whether the president has the credibility to make the case for changing his mind.

Mr. McCain argued that it is the nation's credibility at stake in Kosovo. To lose to Slobodan Milosevic he said, would only invite adventurism by other rogue leaders. "The consequences of failing to win this conflict," he said, "are severe and would entail a much larger sacrifice of American blood, not only there but in other parts of the world."

It is true, of course, that Senator McCain has credentials on this issue. His almost six years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese has given him a stature that is unassailable. By way of comparison, most of his rivals can claim only a stint in the reserves or the National Guard.

But Mr. McCain has shown a willingness to run against the grain on issues in which his wartime heroism offered no insulation from criticism. He has angered many Republicans for taking the lead in seeking reform of the campaign finance system and in pursuing the tobacco companies that are such a rich source of treasure for the party. After years in a cell in Hanoi, the Arizona Republican seems impervious to the disapproval of the Trent Lotts and Orrin Hatches of his party.

In the long run, the chances are that the crisis in Kosovo will not have much, if any, effect on the presidential election next year, assuming that it is resolved well before the primaries. Everyone in politics remembers that President George Bush found his successful conduct of the war against Iraq essentially useless as a political lever. Americans care about foreign policy only when the nation is threatened.

But we have learned something about John McCain that perhaps we should have known long ago. He marches to his own drummer.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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