A few key grafs:
Within hours [of 9/11], Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Nor did McCain cool down after those first heated days after 9/11:
Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”
Some of his supporters think this kind of attitude is just wonderful:
To his admirers, Mr. McCain’s tough response to Sept. 11 is at the heart of his appeal. They argue that he displayed the same decisiveness again last week in his swift calls to penalize Russia for its incursion into Georgia, in part by sending peacekeepers to police its border.
Well, let's just pause here for a moment. McCain has not been "tough" with Russia about its incursion into Georgia--not at all. He has merely parroted the same kind of blustering blather that we are hearing from Bush and Condi Rice, empty words with nothing to back them up. We all know, or at least we should know, that the United States is not going to get involved in a military confrontation with Russia, and we also know that talk about "sanctions" is the way that weak and confused leaders who are not holding many cards try to make us think they are being "tough"--as the response to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program demonstrates full well.
Now, back to McCain's response to 9/11:
His critics charge that the emotion of Sept. 11 overwhelmed his former cool-eyed caution about deploying American troops without a clear national interest and a well-defined exit, turning him into a tool of the Bush administration in its push for a war to transform the region.
“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”
Show me somebody to hit. Well, McCain doesn't seemed to have changed much, nor to have learned much, since 9/11 and our misadventure in Iraq. But somehow I think that many Americans have, including many Republicans. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Obama has not been hitting McCain harder on the Iraq war, and moreover, that Obama has not put real distance between his position on how to deal with Russia and that of McCain and Bush (Obama's main concern has been trying not to appear "weak.")
We need a president who realizes that the United States is no longer the only superpower, if it ever was, and who understands that testosterone-fueled fantasies about taking out terrorists and Russians Terminator-style are for boys on the school playground and not world leaders. In other words, we need a president with the maturity to hold his (or her) fire and actually think situations through. Indeed, tough-talking, would-be leaders like McCain should go back and take a second look at all those John Wayne movies they grew up on. They would realize that even Wayne did a lot more talking than shooting.
PS--Frank Rich is back from vacation with lots of other questions about McCain.
Afterthought: The basic U.S. strategy towards Russia, which has now backfired, has been to increasingly encircle it with members of NATO, with Georgia and the Ukraine the next links on the chain. Whose brilliant idea was that? Americans should ask themselves that question.
Afterthought Update (August 18): A long analysis in today's New York Times gives some good hints.
More thought (August 18): Americans concerned with the Russia-Georgia conflict could do with more of the kind of sober and realistic commentary coming from the Europeans, including this analysis by journalist and historian Max Hastings in today's Guardian.