WHEN we hear Sen. John McCain criticize the growing calls to get out of Iraq as "a failure of leadership" on the part of Democrats, we have to wonder: Does this guy really believe what he's saying?
The real "failure of leadership" was committed by the person most responsible for getting us into Iraq in the first place: President George W. Bush.
It is against that fundamental failure the Arizona Republican ought to be running for president, but he's not. Instead, he is using a well-founded desire to exit this misbegotten war as a political hammer against his Democratic opponents, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
"To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests, and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility," he declared the other day.
Inexorably, throughout this campaign, Mr. McCain has tied his candidacy to the fortunes of the war in Iraq, not in terms of an exit strategy for a mistake but the war as a valid extension of U.S. foreign policy.
It's no wonder that the Democrats have taken to referring to him as "McBush," to cement the view that a vote for Mr. McCain is, essentially, a vote for a third term for Mr. Bush - and his unending war.
While Mr. McCain has signaled previously that he rejects the bullyboy tactics of the Bush Administration in the foreign policy arena, he firmly supports what he referred to in Foreign Affairs magazine not long ago as "our continuing efforts to win in Iraq."
Unfortunately, Mr. McCain has not articulated what it will take to "win" in Iraq, other than to obsequiously parrot the Bush mantra that we can't quit and that the American people must be prepared to underwrite a steady stream of military dead and severely wounded at a cost of some $12 billion a month for an indeterminate period.
When Mr. McCain predicts "calamitous consequences" that he claims will result from a pullout, we hear an echo of similar duplicitous claims that were made by American presidents - of both political parties - in defense of the Vietnam War, another grave foreign policy error that bled the United States for more than a decade.
Mr. McCain's lament about the danger of withdrawal to the Iraqi people rings hollow, arising as it does from officialdom that so devalues the Iraqi population that it doesn't even keep track of civilian deaths. Equally hollow is his prediction of damage to "our most vital interests," when neither he nor Mr. Bush can supply a clear definition of those interests.
Our point: We believe it will be cheaper, in terms of national pride, lives, and treasure, to devise a strategy for a quick and relatively safe exit soon from Iraq than it will be to stay for however long, shackled by a mistake.
If Mr. McCain wishes to campaign as the candidate of indefinite war - delaying the inevitable in search of the mirage of victory, all staked to a rash definition of national honor - he is free to take that risk. Just let it be clear that it is now McBush's war.