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Old soldiers never die...

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WASHINGTON -- President John Sidney McCain III, three years into his term as the nation's 44th Chief Executive, still enjoying a 65-per cent public approval rating, having announced that he will not seek re-election this November at the age of 76 -- thus clearing the field for Vice President Palin to seek the Oval Office for herself - steps to the podium to throaty cheers and furious applause.

We're at the annual convocation of The Institute of Turkish Studies and the ballroom is jammed. President McCain, whose resounding defeat of Senator Barack Obama in 2008 helped to deter a looming global economic crisis and fueled a continued rise in home values across the United States, is to announce his plans for American support of Syrian rebels in their attempt to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad...

Then I open my eyes and John McCain -- still merely the senior senator from Arizona, still a strident critic of appeasement and isolationism in a jobless, war-weary land -- is at the microphone, telling the former diplomat who has introduced him to several hundred young Turks and old Washington hands, "You had to mention that I ran for the presidency. Well, after I lost, I slept like a baby -- slept two hours, wake up and cry. Slept two hours, wake up and cry."

We are four summers distant from a campaign that seems now -- much as it did then -- as a lopsided contest between tomorrow and yesterday, idealism and experience, grace and grit, cool and crabbiness. Then, four autumns ago, as if the fuse of a time bomb had been set for election day, the American economy crumbled and angry old John McCain offered no solutions, no ideas, no innovations; nothing, in fact, beyond a resume of defiance of his Hanoi jailers, the inane chant of "Drill baby, drill."

"Our fundamental role in the world is to support people who seek the things we hold dear," he is saying now, and these words might have served John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson just as aptly half a century ago as they conscripted a spaced-out generation to fight Communism in Vietnam.

"I would like the President of the United States to stand up for the people of Syria," John McCain says. "Can't the President of the United States stand up and say: This massacre must stop?"

He invokes the memory of "our beloved Ronald Reagan" and how the Gipper's defiant Cold War rhetoric helped to sustain hope among the crushed and crucified dissidents of the Soviet Empire.

He hisses that "Assad's slaughter is being enabled by Russian and Iran" and pleads that American air power be used to create a safe haven for anti-regime fighters, if only "to show that we are not an unreliable partner or a declining power."

He describes a recent trip to meet with Syrian refugees at the Turkish border and how they spoke of gang rapes and the slaughter of innocent children.

"I have seen my share of suffering and death," McCain says. "But the stories I was told still haunt me."

"It used to be the United States led from behind," he says. "Now it doesn't lead at all."

It's the second time I've listened to McCain speak on foreign affairs in the past few weeks. At a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I hear him call Obama's failure to arm or protect the Syrian opposition "a stain on our national honour." He says that recent Taliban attacks in Kabul "are reminiscent of the Tet Offensive," although perhaps only one young American in 100 would understand the reference.

He notes with a sigh that the 2012 election, in which he has played no role whatsoever, is centred on "Jobs and the economy. Jobs and the economy. Jobs and the economy. I understand that. But I also understand that our national interests are tied up in that part of the world.

"When was the last time you saw the President of the United States explain why it is important for us to succeed in Afghanistan? All I hear are announcements of withdrawal. Announcements of withdrawal. We're gonna be out. We're gonna be out. We're gonna be out."

"I have been around a fair amount of time," says John McCain. "Some would say, too long."

When the speech concludes, I approach the podium and yearn to ask John Sidney McCain III, who came so close to the mountaintop, if he really still wakes and cries like a baby, or if he ever did.

Instead, we talk about Mitt Romney and the upcoming Republican convention in Tampa and how Barack Obama's presidency has turned out to be so seemingly inconsequential across the Islamic world.

"One point five million people in the streets of Tehran and you know what he said?" John McCain interrogates me.

The old eyes are tight and burning, the cheeks reddened, the teeth clenched.


Allen Abel is Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J11

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