- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

With the Democratic presidential contenders crisscrossing Pennsylvania in a provincial battle for the nomination, presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain will seize the world stage next week during a six-day trip to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, England and France.

The trip, which will include meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, will burnish the senator’s already lengthy resume on foreign policy.

The two-day stop in Iraq also will be a chance for Mr. McCain to turn the very issue that nearly killed his campaign last summer into an advantage.

In Baghdad, he can tout the dramatic advances that have occurred since the U.S. troop surge — a strategy long supported by Mr. McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

While some Democrats grumbled that the senator — traveling with Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, on an official congressional mission — is using taxpayer money for a high-profile trip that will benefit his presidential campaign, others acknowledged that Mr. McCain is making a smart strategic move on several fronts.

“A trip to the Middle East by McCain accomplishes three things: First, it takes the issue he is most associated with and begins to use it to define himself as a presidential candidate,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.

“Two, the images it creates are intended to make him look presidential just as the orchestrated handoff with President Bush at the White House. Lastly, it keeps him in the presidential coverage during the six-week fight in Pennsylvania the Democrats will be engaged and the media covering,” she said.

Mr. McCain has made his early advocacy for the troop surge central to his campaign. Even when violence spiked in Iraq during the summer, sending his poll numbers plummeting and stalling his efforts to raise funds, the senator repeatedly asserted that he would “rather lose a campaign than lose a war.”

With even congressional Democrats now grudgingly acknowledging that the surge of 20,000 troops into Baghdad last winter established security in the war-torn country, Mr. McCain is now unabashedly embracing the issue the Democratic nominee will soon use to bludgeon him.

“Obviously, it’s a very unpopular war,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in American national security policy. “But I think it’s an issue that works to John McCain’s advantage, at least the way things are now aligned, because he’s been proven so right on the surge.”

Mr. O’Hanlon, a Democrat who penned an article last summer that said America is winning the war in Iraq, said next week’s trip by Mr. McCain “keeps him in the news a bit and reinforces his relative advantage on this issue.” In addition, the trip draws a sharp contrast with the Democratic presidential contenders, both of whom pledge to withdraw troops quickly, if elected.

“In reality, of course, McCain is now able to compare his support for a policy that looks like the logical continuation of the surge with a Democratic position that at least at the moment appears to be fairly rapid departure from the scene over there with the likelihood of disrupting the progress we’ve made in the last year,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

In a moment of candor for the already straight-talking senator, Mr. McCain said last month that he needs to convince the American people the troop escalation in Iraq is working or “I lose.”

The senator, making his eighth trip to Iraq, has taken a beating of late from Sen. Barack Obama, who has made one trip there. The first-term Illinois senator has berated the 25-year member of Congress for saying the United States may be in Iraq for “100 years.”

But Anthony Cordesman, who once served as a national security assistant to Mr. McCain and just returned from Iraq, wrote recently that “it will take a major and consistent U.S. effort throughout the next administration at least to win either war.”

“I’m not sure how much the American people are fooled by what’s taking place” on the campaign trail, Mr. Cordesman said. “I think both [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton and Obama — everybody has an escape clause: It’s known as reality. … I would hope that we elect presidents to deal with reality, not with political rhetoric.”

Mr. McCain will also use the tour to engender some goodwill after seven years of what Democrats deride as “cowboy diplomacy.”

“I would like to talk to our friends about ways that we can better cooperate,” he told reporters in St. Louis last week.

But Mr. O’Hanlon said the senator will do more than just talk.

“Meeting with people like the leaders of Jordan or France is a way of mitigating his weakness or his vulnerability for the simple fact that he’s a Republican,” he said. “He can kind of close the gap with this kind of trip.”

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