US Senator John McCain lost the White House in 2008 and spent much of the next five years clashing with Barack Obama.
Yet within the space of a few days the former fighter pilot has become the president’s wingman on Syria.
As Washington contemplates war, McCain has emerged as the Republican power broker urging colleagues to authorize Obama to launch punishing military salvos against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
As a key Senate panel set to vote on the use of force, McCain wanted the measure’s language toughened up. He got it.
Obama needed a Republican senator to press his case for intervention. McCain stepped up, cementing his latest incarnation as one of the most influential Republicans in Washington.
One year ago he began blasting the administration—and Washington’s then-envoy to the United Nations Susan Rice—over its account of a deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Yet Monday, in a sign of how Washington sometimes inverts logic and throws up shifting alliances, McCain sat between Obama and Rice in the Oval Office, discussing Syria strategy.
McCain has fought tooth and nail against Obama on several issues, notably the health care law and economic stimulus of 2009. Then the Republicans seized the House of Representatives in 2010, and things changed.
“Now, the environment is such that the White House has reached out to me,” McCain told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview on Thursday. “And I’ve reached back.”
The hawkish Republican has had his share of good and bad days in a quarter-century Senate career, but it would be hard to deny that this year has been a keeper for McCain.
He unveiled comprehensive immigration reform, and his arm-twisting helped the landmark bill pass the Senate.
When obstinate senators nearly forced a potentially disastrous change to chamber rules, McCain stepped in to broker a compromise. And he called out Tea Party-backed senators as “wacko birds” when they refused to work out a federal budget unless they got their way on other issues.
But his true bailiwick is the international arena, and with Obama’s strategy seemingly in a muddle, McCain’s stock has risen.
“He is a senator with foreign policy credentials and strong views. That puts him in the center of the mix,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center and an advisor to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state for two decades.
“For a Republican Party grasping for a foreign policy somewhere between Bush ’43’ and Obama, McCain has become a sort of leading voice.”
McCain has stood accused of heedlessly backing wars or military interventions, and once suggested US forces should remain in Iraq for 100 years.
He also made headlines in 2007 when he joked about bombing Iran to the tune of the Beach Boys classic “Barbara Ann.”
No one in Congress, however, matches McCain’s personal understanding of the horror of war. He spent more than five years as a POW in Hanoi, and his scars from the torture he endured in Vietnam are visible.
But he insists he is no warmonger, citing his opposition to sending US Marines into Lebanon in the 1980s.
At 77, McCain is among the Senate’s elder statesman, but he is relentlessly on the move, speaking by phone between two town halls he was hosting Thursday in his state of Arizona. And countering the notion he has slid into irrelevance, McCain has more followers on Twitter—1.8 million—than any lawmaker.
Richard Fontaine, a former McCain advisor and now president of the Center for a New American Security, said McCain once described himself “as an idealistic realist, somebody who believes deeply in the use of American power for idealistic ends, but is pragmatic and realistic” about its application.
McCain is aware that Republican upstarts like Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, three potential presidential candidates in 2016, do not share his views. Paul and Rubio bucked McCain Wednesday, voting against the use of force in Syria.
“I’m worried—deeply worried—about the debate that’s going to go on and is going on within the Republican Party,” McCain said.
His reputation withered after the 2008 election, but he scoffs at suggestions he underwent a metamorphosis from cynical lawmaker fighting Obama at every turn to a remade Washington power player.
McCain’s rejection of that narrative “probably won’t change the convenient storyline that the ‘angry, bitter old man’ that used to be the maverick is now back again,” he said.
“But I think it’s bullshit.” AFP