Back on the Battlefield

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

How the Libya debate snapped John McCain out of his 2008 funk--and into a fresh fight with Obama.

It was late ON a summer's night in 2009 when John McCain met Muammar Gaddafi, whose behavior bordered on the bizarre.

The Libyan leader, a map of Africa emblazoned on his shirt, was ensconced in a tent in Tripoli with horses exercising outside when he turned to the visiting senator and said, "If you had withdrawn all the troops from Iraq, you would have been elected president." McCain, concluding his host was crazy, countered: "I can think of a lot of reasons I lost, but that wasn't one I had seriously considered."

Less than two years later, McCain was back in the region, watching TV in Tunisia as the first street protests erupted in Libya in mid-February. As McCain and his Senate wingman, Joe Lieberman, traveled on to Lebanon and then Jordan, they spent hours discussing whether to support U.S. military action against Gaddafi. Once they came out for a no-fly zone, McCain grew increasingly frustrated as, in his view, the administration dithered--a delay he blames on President Obama's "world view, and a belief we don't act unless it's with other countries." Twisting a Sharpie in his Senate office as he speaks in staccato bursts, McCain says, "I don't think he feels strongly about American exceptionalism."

The battle-scarred warrior who lost to Obama two and a half years ago is again finding his voice--jolted into action by the revolutions catching fire across the Middle East. The Arizona Republican, a onetime Navy pilot famously shot down over Vietnam, has a passion for military matters that has always far outstripped his interest in domestic issues. McCain is taking some serious shots: he says Gaddafi would be gone had Obama started the bombing sooner, and that the president should never have relinquished control of the mission to NATO. But he has broken with conservative elements in his own party in backing Obama--going further than many war-wary Democrats.

Some in McCain's orbit believe he occasionally enjoys a bit of schadenfreude at the president's difficulties. But Mark Salter, McCain's longtime confidant, says, "More than anybody, he's responsible for normalizing relations with the North Vietnamese. If he had a grudge against anyone in the world, you'd have thought it was them."

Both sides have felt the friction. During a health-care meeting last year, the president chided McCain, "We're not campaigning anymore. The election is over." But Obama had him in for an Oval Office chat after the senator praised his speech on the Tucson shootings, and that has defrosted the relationship. McCain "does not play a tremendous amount of politics" on foreign issues, says Obama communications chief Dan Pfeiffer. The two "have a similar orientation of looking for common ground, even if it means angering members of your own party." McCain became a media darling for doing just that--until he ran against Barack Obama. "When I go after a president of my own party," he says, the press calls him "a maverick. When I was going against a president of the other party, arrhh."

McCain's renewed sense of engagement is a sharp contrast to the disappointment of 2008. Some friends say he slid into grumpy-old-man mode; others go further. "He was white-hot angry," says an associate who requested anonymity to candidly describe encounters with McCain. "At everybody--himself, the media, the staff, the world."

He now sounds philosophical; after all, he has been through this before. After his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain says, "I spent some time feeling sorry for myself and it didn't do any good. …