John McCain has routinely touted his resoluteness in combating Islamic extremism. When Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the Republican primary and endorsed his former challenger, the Arizona Republican responded with due praise:
"I want to say I not only thank him for his friendship, I want to thank him for his leadership of America," McCain said of the former New York City mayor. "I believe that my life has prepared me, the life of service and dedication, to lead this nation in the transcendent challenge of the 21st Century: the great threat and evil of radical Islamic extremism which threatens everything we stand for and believe in. And my strong right arm and my partner and friend in this effort will be the former mayor of New York City, an American hero, Rudy Giuliani. I'm deeply honored."
But for someone who would be the "strong right arm" -- the war on terror consigliore so to speak -- in a theoretical McCain administration, Giuliani lacks what McCain today insists is an essential resume filler for any world leader. He's never visited Iraq.
Over the past week, McCain's presidential campaign has been biting and relentless in taking Sen. Barack Obama to task for not having traveled to Iraq in more than two years. The hiatus -- in addition to not having a one-on-one meeting with General David Petreaus -- is enough to cast serious doubts over Obama's foreign policy capacities, the Senator and his aides insist.
"It is disappointing that Senator Obama would travel to Iraq for the first time in over two years, and instead of listening and learning from our troops, he would insist upon an immediate withdrawal," said McCain's spokesman Brian Rogers. "The American people want a president and commander in chief who bases critical decisions on the facts, not ideology. Senator Obama's willingness to deliberately ignore the facts on the ground reveals his flawed judgment, and reflects a position completely rooted in his ideology rather than reality."
But the argument ignores the glaring fact that McCain is surrounded by like-minded individuals who support the war and have traveled to Iraq just as infrequently as Obama. Some of these figures, moreover, seem poised to play major roles both in McCain's run for the White House and his presidency should he get to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Beyond Giuliani, there is Mitt Romney, who recently made a trip to McCain's ranch and is believed to be on the shortlist of VP choices. The former Massachusetts Governor, who could very well end up a heartbeat away from the presidency, has been to Iraq just once; in May 2006, he made a surprise trip to Baghdad under tight security and warned against a "cut and run" pullout from the war-torn country. Florida Gov. Charlie Christ, another attendee of the ranch event -- as well as a member of McCain's theoretical VP list -- has never visited Iraq, his office confirmed.
None of these individuals, it should be noted, are currently running for the title of commander in chief. And as such, the level of scrutiny to which they're held is different than that for Obama. But the broader point, observers say, is still very much valid: it's not how many times you visit the country, but rather what kind of information you gleam from your time there and elsewhere.
"For Senator McCain, I think we should remember that: a) young American soldiers aren't going to meet John McCain and tell him: Iraq is totally fucked, get us out of here. It's John McCain! He's a war hero! It would be like admitting you failed to your grandfather," Newsweek's Michael Hastings, author of "I Lost My Love In Baghdad: A Modern War Story," told The Huffington Post. "I talked to Senator Obama when he visited in 2006. He did something that was quite interesting: after a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, he sat down with reporters after for a private, off the record conversation. It was his idea. He asked us: Okay, what's really going on here? What followed was a pretty candid discussion among the press and BHO. It was certainly a slick move on his part; making the press feel important can never hurt."
Indeed, in the Senate, some of the most outspoken critics of the Iraq war, and some of the most fervent advocates for the withdrawal of combat forces, are individuals who have visited the country most regularly. As of July 2007, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island had gone to Iraq more than ten times, according to a tally by The Hill newspaper. Joseph Biden, meanwhile, had visited seven, while Sen. John Warner, one of several Republican critics of the Bush war policy, had visited nine times.
On the flip side are several war supporters who have been to Iraq just as infrequently as Obama. Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, has traveled to the country just once, as has Alaska Republican Lisa Murkoswki. Others, like Sens. Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and Mel Martinez, have recently made second trips.
There are, of course, Democratic war critics who have gone to Iraq just once, twice, or not at all. But none of them have assailed Obama for not making the journey. On Friday, Sen. Jon Kyl co-hosted a McCain conference call in which he blasted the Democratic frontrunner for not having the first-hand knowledge of the success of Americans troops. The Arizona Republican's last trip to Iraq, his second, came in February 2007, according to news sources -- months before "surge" troops were sent to the country.
"I went to a number of press conferences at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad when CODEL's would visit Iraq," said Hastings. "I didn't get the sense that the politicians on these trips had open minds; they were in Iraq to find proof of their own views. In other words, the CODELS just re-enforced their preconceived notions. It wasn't like a Senator arrives, and says: "Holy Shit, was I ever wrong!" So I think it's better for the pols to go then not to go, to see for themselves, but the trips are highly orchestrated, and, in that sense, probably fairly useless."