John McCain raises the bar for Iraq discussion

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John McCain raises the bar for Iraq discussion

BY KEVIN FERRIS

The Philadelphia Inquirer

John McCain’s speech recently about the war on terror may not win him the White House. And it’s too soon to tell whether the strategy he’s endorsed can turn things around in Iraq.

But the speech, at the Virginia Military Institute, raises the bar for discussion of the war by presidential candidates. Not because of his assessment of progress being made, or his outline of the consequences of failure, or even his attack on the war’s critics. Those were all on point and eloquent.

What sets McCain (whose forebears are from Mississippi) apart is simply how he frames the debate: as a matter of honor. Coming from a war hero with 50 years of service to his country, that makes a huge difference.

At VMI, he spoke of Gen. David Petraeus’ honor to lead troops who show such “courage and resolve.” The duty of finding a way forward that “best honors their sacrifices.” Most important, he explained why he was obligated to give the current strategy a chance to succeed: “To do otherwise would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.”

Honor is a recurring theme in McCain’s writings and speeches.

When he accepted a Profile in Courage Award in 1999 for backing campaign-finance reform, which hadn’t yet passed, he spoke of the importance of honor in his life.

“When I was a young man,” McCain said, “and all glory was self-glory, I responded aggressively and often irresponsibly to anyone who questioned my honor. I still remember how zealously a boy would attend the needs of his self-respect.

“But as I grew older, and the challenges to my self-respect became more varied and difficult, I was surprised to discover that while my sense of honor had matured, its defense mattered even more to me than it did when I believed that honor was such a frail thing that any empty challenge could threaten it.”

Dreaded dishonor

Over time, he said, he had learned “to dread dishonor above all other injuries.”

He supported campaign-finance reform because it was a way to restore honor to a process that the public viewed as tainted by the relentless pursuit of money.

“I believe public service is an honorable profession,” McCain said. “I believed that when I entered the Naval Academy at 17, and I believe it still. … But the people whom I serve believe that the means by which I came to office corrupt me. That shames me. Their contempt is a stain upon my honor, and I cannot live with it.”

In his books, McCain writes about trying to measure up to what he learned from his father and grandfather, both admirals, and from the men with whom he served in Vietnam, especially his fellow POWs.

In “Character Is Destiny,” he tells how Americans were tortured for military information, for details about one another, for statements against their country or their mission. If they would just speak, they were told, the pain would stop – and no one would know they had talked.

McCain writes, “But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response. “I will know. I will know.

“That, dear reader, is good character. And I hope it is your destiny, your choice, your achievement, to hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: “I will know. I will know. I will know.”

The voice in the speech

Perhaps McCain heard that voice as he prepared his VMI speech. He could have bowed to the polls, backed away from this administration and its war. He didn’t.

Instead, he countered the withdrawal wave engulfing Congress. He warned of the results of failure for Iraq, the region, and the United States. He pointed out the “first glimmers of progress” from the troop increase and counterinsurgency strategy – though “the hour is late and … we should have no illusion that success is certain.” He blasted Democrats for their cynicism, their cheers while voting to endorse defeat, and their refusal “to offer an alternative strategy that has some relationship to reality.”

“Responsible political leaders – statesmen – do not add to the burdens our troops carry,” he said.

Granted, McCain is a politician, and his goal for 2009 is clear. But on this topic, neither polls nor ambition have led him to embrace dishonor.

He may not become president, but, along the way, he’ll set the standard for an honorable debate.

Kevin Ferris is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at kfphillynews.com.