THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

McCain voices guarded optimism on Iraq but says hurdles are high

(Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / December 6, 2007

Republican presidential contender John McCain said yesterday he was "guardedly optimistic" about the ability of Iraqis to make political, economic, and social progress, thanks to what he described as the "fundamental of a secure environment" brought about by the US troop increase he championed.

"I'm not ready yet to set a deadline and I'd like to at least give them another in a series of opportunities to show some progress," McCain said in an interview with Boston Globe editors.

McCain, who met with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad over Thanksgiving, cited indicators of both success (the return of refugees, a 5K run in Ramadi) and failure (the persistence of suicide bombers, physical threats to Iraqi judges) in building the nation's civil society amid the mission that he boasted was once called the "McCain surge" by critics.

Yet the hurdles to assembling a strong government, McCain suggested, were high, from sectarian squabbling he had personally witnessed among the country's leaders and the "byzantine" lawmaking structure.

"They've got something like 41 ministers in their government," McCain said. "Who designed that? They ought to take that guy out and shoot him."

The Arizona senator said the best-case political scenario for Iraq would be a "loose confederation . . . with a very bumbling, not terribly effective central government with a lot of the autonomy being exercised but Iraq not breaking up into three different countries." To get there, he said, would require a continued US military presence in an advisory role as responsibility is transferred to Iraqi authorities.

"We have troops all over the world," McCain said. "Americans don't mind that. What Americans mind is casualties."

McCain said he believes the increased stability in Iraq had somewhat calmed matters elsewhere in the Middle East, although he said he was withholding judgment on the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which says Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago, until he could "look under the hood" of the report.

Regardless, McCain said, he saw Iran as a continued threat to the United States because of its alleged role in supplying weapons in Iraq and its support for terrorism elsewhere. Yet he suggested that the Bush administration pursue diplomacy with the country.

"If there's common ground and there's common interest with the Iranians, then we should of course try to have communications with them," he said.

The matter of how the United States should reach out to Iran - one that has figured heavily in debates between the Democratic presidential contenders - was of little importance, McCain said.

"Some say open, formal talks; others say don't talk to them at all," he said. "I think this business of how you communicate is the most overrated aspect of diplomacy, because you can always communicate."

On that subject and others, McCain frequently turned to history, particularly Vietnam, where he was held as a prisoner of war. For example, in this case, he suggested that it was not laborious peace negotiations in Paris - where delegations bickered over the shape of the table - but military realities that ended American involvement in Southeast Asia.

Yesterday's meeting with the Globe editorial board was the second of the campaign for McCain, who received the paper's endorsement when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. On Sunday, he received the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, that state's largest newspaper.

This week, McCain has toured editorial boards of New Hampshire newspapers, whose support, aides said yesterday, would be particularly key in a state where a growing number of independent voters would probably not pick a candidate until shortly before the Jan. 8 primary.

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at sissenberg@globe.com.

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