Steve Chapman

On the campaign trail, John McCain has retreated on immigration, changed his mind on tax cuts and admitted economics is not his strong suit. But all that's unimportant, we are told, because he was Right On Iraq -- back at the beginning, when he endorsed the invasion, and again over the past year, when he has stoutly supported the surge. So, whichever Democrat he faces, the November election could be a referendum on the Iraq war and his support for it.

If so, that may not be a plus for McCain. McCain has been consistent about Iraq, in the sense of being consistently wrong. If the American people get a long look at what he's said and a clear picture of our fortunes in Iraq, he may yearn for the days when he was being pilloried for offering "amnesty" to illegal immigrants.

McCain portrays himself as uniquely clear-eyed about the war. In fact, those eyes have often been full of stars. When Army Gen. Eric Shinseki forecast that more troops would be needed for the occupation, McCain didn't fret. Shortly before the invasion, he said, "I have no qualms about our strategic plans." As the online magazine Salon reports, he predicted the war would be "another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America."

He brags now that he criticized Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the occupation. But McCain didn't declare "no confidence" in him until a year and a half after the invasion. And let's not forget the day he took a stroll through a Baghdad market, guarded by attack helicopters and 100 soldiers in full combat mode, to prove how safe Iraq was. The following day, 21 Iraqis were abducted from the market and murdered.

McCain's attempts to show off his expertise often turn into banana peels. Recently he attacked Barack Obama for saying that in the future, he might send forces back in "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq." Jeered the Arizona senator, "Al-Qaida already has a base in Iraq. It's called al-Qaida in Iraq."

But al-Qaida in Iraq has about as much to do with al-Qaida in Afghanistan as the San Diego Padres have to do with the Catholic Church. It's a separate, independent and largely homegrown group that is focused on slaughtering Iraqi Shiites, not targeting American cities. And here's a newsflash for McCain: It didn't exist until our invasion created conditions favorable to violent insurgency.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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