Arizona Sen. John McCain tours the Middle East this week as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and his support of the Iraq war is well known. Less well known is how the war fits into his overall view of the region: He sees it as the linchpin to almost everything.
On key Middle East issues, such as his support for Israel and his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, McCain's thinking is in line with most pragmatic American politicians, including his two Democratic opponents, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
What separates McCain from the Democrats -- both of whom tout plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq -- is how closely he ties success in Iraq to other U.S. goals for the Middle East.
"So much that happens going forward depends on what happens in Iraq," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser. "Obviously, Iraq is not the only interest we have in the Middle East, but from Senator McCain's viewpoint, it would be difficult if not impossible to achieve our other goals in the Middle East if we're defeated in Iraq."
That's because McCain sees Iran as the common thread promoting instability throughout the region: arming extremists in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and using Syria as a proxy in its efforts.
If the U.S. fails in Iraq, McCain thinks that it will be that much harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israel and Palestinians and to prevent Iran from dominating the region. An emboldened Iran also would be able to pressure moderate Arab nations sympathetic to U.S. goals. This is why McCain refers to "radical Islamic extremism" on the campaign trail as "the transcendent challenge of our time."