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Friday, Feb. 15, 2008

McCain's stubbornness raises questions

LOS ANGELES — One of my all-time favorite Chinese proverbs goes like this: "To listen well is as powerful a means to influence as to talk well, and it is essential to all true conversations."

This ancient adage has often popped into my head these past seven years in the bumpy, unhappy presidency of George W. Bush. These have been years of anything but "stop, look and listen." Rather, especially his first four years, they have been more an age of "go forward, blindly, with earplugs firmly in place."

Sen. John McCain now is one of the last two white men standing at the top of the greatly diminished Republican field to succeed Bush in January. The rapid withdrawal of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leaves little more than Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the Arizona senator's way. This should not prove too daunting a hurdle.

The many admirers of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee McCain point to qualities of steely steadiness, principled consistency and unusual candor — not to mention the former U.S. Navy captain's admirable war service and sacrifice.

But those who openly dislike him remind us that the 71-year-old is also well known for some bad qualities as well. He can be nasty, brutish and short; he can be hasty and explosive; and he can be stubborn unto the oxen denial of reality.

And so there may be plenty about him still to examine. Consider a speech he gave last February at an international security conference in Munich largely attended by our erstwhile and much-maligned (by the Bush administration) European allies. Few of them supported the war in Iraq — most had expressed absolute hatred of it — and those governments that had for whatever reason stood by the U.S. over Iraq were generally unceremoniously rebuffed at election time by very unhappy fellow citizens.

Despite the obvious, gaping and embarrassing reality of profound tension in the Atlantic alliance, here is what McCain had the nerve to put to the delegates then: "To those who say that disagreements over the war in Iraq strained the alliance irreparably, I dissent."

Does this denial-of-reality quality echo the starchy Texas stubbornness of any particular current Western leader you might just happen to think of?

McCain is to be examined in microscopic detail not only by the often-wrong U.S. news-media commentariat, but now by the world press as well. And this is as it should be: Foreigners do not get to vote in our presidential elections, but they are stuck anyway with whomever Americans pick. This is not fair, of course, but it happens every four years, whether foreigners like it or not. So we should listen to what they have to say.

For the one issue of U.S. foreign policy on which most of the rest of the world agrees is that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder. They also say that the sooner the U.S. extricates itself (and concentrates more on Afghanistan and Pakistan), the better for the world, the better for the so-called war on terror and the better for America itself.

Yet McCain, with almost astonishing steadfastness if not indifference to reality, supports the war, notably endorsed Bush's "surge" escalation last year and might, he suggests, take his good time to withdraw U.S. troops if he's elected president.

It's hard to square this view with his otherwise non-Bushian sense that the world is no longer America's oyster. For in the Munich speech cited above, the senator also said: "The rise of new centers of power in Asia and beyond will necessarily diminish the West's privileged position in the international system."

It's almost impossible to imagine Bush saying something as sensible as that. But at the same time, it's almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Bush or some whacked-out neoconservative blithely wanting to stay the Iraq course for the foreseeable future.

So the question about McCain remains: Is he the voice and vision of a new kind of conservatism that a broad spectrum of people in America and elsewhere in the world can and, perhaps, should support?

Or is he in some sense the second coming of George W.? The world and America have little more than six months to find out.

The world needs a leader in the White House who learns because she or he listens — and leads not by lecture but by thoughtful deed. A touch of true presidential humility wouldn't hurt, either.

In our true conversations with others, let us be silent during at least half of the time of the exchange. We might learn something.

UCLA professor Tom Plate's latest book, "Confessions of an American Media Man," just completed its third reprinting. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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