WASHINGTON — One by one, Sen. John McCain’s fellow prisoners from the Vietnam War have been dying, and at 78, he said, he is aware more than ever that his time will come, too. “Every single day,” he mused in an interview, “is a day less that I am going to be able to serve in the Senate.”
But no one should think that this reminder of his own mortality has tamed McCain, the bellicose Arizona Republican. If he had his way, the United States would have ground troops in Syria, more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a steady supply of arms going to Ukraine.
Now, six years after losing the presidency to Barack Obama, McCain finally has the only job in Washington, D.C., other than being president, that he ever wanted: chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, overseer of the U.S. military and the nation’s defense policy.
The question is whether he will use his new clout (and ability to subpoena) to make war or some accommodation with the White House.
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“McCain now has the power either to destroy the president’s national-security policy or shape it constructively,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is the first step to see whether he is going to use his new power to clobber Obama as he has for the past six years, or whether he will use it to try to shape and improve Obama’s policy.”
For now, despite hints he is trying to reinvent himself from cantankerous Obama critic to elder statesman, McCain still seems to be in clobber mode. In a recent interview, he said Obama’s decision not to send more U.S. troops to Iraq to thwart the Islamic State had put America at risk.
“That attack you saw in Paris? You’ll see an attack in the United States,” McCain said. He repeated his frequent assessment that the president’s foreign policy is “a disaster” and “delusional.” He said “of course” he would have made a better commander in chief.
And he is still seething about his last visit to the Oval Office, in September 2013, when he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., backed Obama’s plan to intervene militarily in Syria — only to watch the president change his mind.
“Didn’t even get the courtesy of a phone call,” McCain said. “When somebody looks you in the eye in the Oval Office and says they’re going to do something, don’t you take their word for it? I did. I took his word for it. And obviously I shouldn’t have.”
In short, he said of Obama’s foreign policy: “I’ve been right. He’s been wrong.”
For his debut as chairman, McCain is planning a series of hearings on national-security strategy with a bipartisan cast of luminaries from administrations long past, among them former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 91, and two former national security advisers: Brent Scowcroft, 89, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 86.
Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said the president sees McCain as possessing “a very important viewpoint to consult with,” even if Obama rejects McCain’s interventionist stance.
Senior Senate Democrats say they respect McCain for his expertise and bipartisan deal-making on issues like immigration, and they hold out the possibility that McCain will do more on the Armed Services Committee than browbeat Obama’s nominees during confirmation hearings, as he has in the past. There are some signs of change: McCain is an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, Ashton Carter, who is to appear before the committee in February.
“I sense he has found the place where his particular talents are most important and most useful to the country,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior Democrat on the committee.
“He’s no longer on the quest to be president, he’s not being distracted by a steppingstone to the next thing, and he feels he’s taking over at a crucial time to shape the policy of the United States.”
For McCain, a former Navy pilot and the son and grandson of admirals, running Armed Services is the “fulfillment of a lifelong political aspiration,” said Mark Salter, a longtime adviser to McCain and co-author of several of the senator’s books.
As chairman, McCain has said, he will push to end the across-the-board budget cuts for the Pentagon known as sequestration, and he wants changes made to cut waste in the military’s procurement system, which has the defense industry on edge. And by using his new platform to draw attention to global threats, he hopes to create a favorable climate for a Republican to win the White House in 2016.
“A year ago, before the beheadings, national security was a very low priority for the American people,” McCain said. “Now it’s a very high priority, and that was what Reagan did when he defeated Jimmy Carter. National security, peace through strength, became a very important phrase.”
Having tangled with Republican budget hawks (he once called Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky “wacko birds”), McCain is buoyed by the recent election of several military veterans: Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Joni Ernst of Iowa. He has maneuvered to put them all on his committee, in hopes of bolstering what he calls “the internationalist wing.”
If McCain runs for re-election in 2016, as he says he is likely to do, he expects a tea-party challenge. If he wins a sixth term, McCain would be 86 at the end of it, so friends say that race would probably be his last.
McCain is not particularly interested in talking about legacy. But he did say he has been hit hard by the deaths of fellow war prisoners, men he considered brothers. So he is feeling a new sense of urgency, he said, to “jam-pack” his schedule and make the most of his time. He said he had already decided what he wanted written on his tombstone: “He served his country.”