WASHINGTON — John McCain may be one of the last hawks left in office — but the old bird sure can flap his wings.
The Arizona Republican had planned to hold the Senate floor for half an hour Wednesday morning with fellow senator and friend Lindsey Graham to plead the case yet again for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. But the South Carolina Republican showed up 20 minutes late, leaving McCain alone to beat the drums of war.
“Now, Madam President, there’s a need for immediate action,” McCain inveighed.
But the only immediate action undertaken by Madam President — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., doing a shift in the presiding officer’s chair — was to read an email on her phone, which she held in her lap.
“There is wholesale killing and slaughter going on, and it will get worse every single day,” McCain pleaded.
Elsewhere in the chamber, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was scrolling on her phone, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., yawned and rubbed his eyes.
Finally, Graham arrived. “I’d like to thank the senator from South Carolina for showing up,” McCain said with sarcasm.
“Sorry I was late,” Graham told him.
The pair were in matching gray suits and light-blue shirts, and each wore a blue tie. Graham stood at his desk, a row behind McCain’s. They tossed softball questions to each other, and Graham made an argument to “go after” ISIS not just in Iraq but in Syria as well.
Shelby checked the clock and struck up a conversation with an aide. Mikulski left the chamber.
It’s a lonely job being an interventionist these days. Not long ago, there were the three amigos — Graham, McCain and Joe Lieberman — leading a powerful group of hawks. Now Lieberman is gone, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., leads a growing band of isolationists. Americans, exhausted by war, express more isolationist sentiment than they have in decades. President Obama shows little appetite for military conflict. And Republican congressional leaders have gone to ground. At a news conference Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, demurred on all questions about involvement in Iraq, finally saying, “I don’t need to get into the specifics.”
This left McCain to make the case for war, with assists from his loyal sidekick Graham and a few others. The problem is that nobody seems to be listening, perhaps because McCain has been a predictable voice for intervention for two decades. He has made noises about U.S. military involvement in Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, Mali, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan and Iraq (multiple times).
If people were listening, they might hear that McCain is talking sensibly about the use of force in this instance. “There is no good option,” he said, acknowledging that airstrikes could exacerbate the situation, but arguing that “the worst option is to do nothing.”
“Air power does not win conflicts,” he allowed. “But air power can have a significant effect on the morale of your people” and “a psychological effect on an enemy.” Referring to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, he granted that “we must do everything in our power to make sure that Maliki appoints a government of reconciliation and departs. But it can’t be the prerequisite for U.S. military action because the events and time are not on our side.”
Obama may well come around to that view, but he might do it more readily if McCain and others weren’t so eager to politicize the chaos in Iraq. McCain couldn’t help himself on the Senate floor, devoting the first half of his remarks to finger pointing, jabbing at the air with his index finger for emphasis: “Brought us to the state of disaster. … Lost the peace. … They tried and failed. … Focus on this failure.” To this, McCain added boasts about how he predicted recent events.
This was debatable (it was George W. Bush who signed the agreement to remove U.S. troops from Iraq) and, even if true, was not helping McCain’s case for military action. “We have to act. We have to act. We must act,” he proclaimed.
But his war fever did not infect his colleagues on the floor. Shelby wiped his face with a handkerchief and tugged at an eyebrow. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., tied his shoes, pulled up his socks and left for the cloakroom. McCain, scheduled to argue again for military action in another speech a few hours later, finished his colloquy with Graham. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., took the floor — and quickly changed the subject to NASA funding.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.