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McCain and Kerry: Obama's Syria surrogates

Testifying on Capitol Hill this week before lawmakers skittish about proposed U.S. military action in Syria, John Kerry sought to assuage fears that America would stumble into another Middle East war by frequently pointing to his friend and supporter sitting with the other senators.

John McCain, the secretary of state said, is someone who understands "what going to war means."

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Indeed, both Kerry and McCain do understand what going to war means: They are Vietnam veterans, with Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and other medals, and the crucible of combat has shaped their respective legislative careers. But anyone watching the hearing or the interactions between the two men and their president as they press for the intervention couldn't help but marvel at how they got there.

Kerry and McCain are President Obama's top surrogates advocating for a U.S. strike on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It's a role for which they are both well suited, but not one that either originally envisioned playing. If personal experience of war is a common bond between them, so, too, is presidential ambition. Both men sought the job of commander-in-chief. Now, they are helping Obama with arguably the biggest foreign policy decision Congress will make since the Iraq War vote in 2002.

Each won his party's respective nomination, and their military experiences were substantial elements in their campaigns -- Kerry's became fraught with controversy while McCain's was his top credential. (They could also have shared a ticket, as Kerry asked McCain to consider being his running mate in 2004.) Each man failed to win the Oval Office but, ironically enough, Barack Obama played a significant role in their campaigns, too. Then-Senate candidate Obama gave a rousing speech at Kerry's nominating convention in 2004, in which he praised the nominee's military experience. The address catapulted Obama from Chicago to the national stage and sparked talk of his presidential potential. Four years later, Obama would beat McCain in a historic election that sent the first African-American to the White House.

McCain and Kerry both returned to the Senate after their unsuccessful presidential bids. The latter was the first to do so since George McGovern, following his 1972 loss to Richard Nixon. After being passed over by Obama for secretary of state in favor of his colleague -- and Obama's 2008 rival -- Hillary Clinton, Kerry became the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a key voice voice on affairs abroad. McCain continues to serve on that committee and is the top Republican member of the Armed Services panel. Both worked together two years ago in advocating for intervention in Libya.

McCain has become an occasional, if unlikely, ally of Obama's in the Senate. While he gave the White House a tough time over the nomination of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, McCain worked with the president and Senate Democrats on fiscal issues, immigration reform and, most recently, averting unprecedented changes to filibuster rules. In these ways and others, the Arizona senator has re-emerged as the maverick he'd portrayed himself as until the 2008 campaign.

Whether he and Kerry can get members off the fence and into the yes column on the Syria resolution is uncertain. By Thursday evening, after both men had sat through dozens of hours of testimony and briefings, the chance of passage seemed dimmer than it did earlier in the week.

While House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi are backing the White House's proposal, members of both parties have been distancing themselves from the Syrian initiative. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin -- who has been attending hearings of committees he isn't even a member of -- was considered a key swing vote, but he announced Thursday he would not support the resolution that passed out of Foreign Relations. Boehner ally Tom Cole, a representative from Oklahoma, also said Thursday he would not support airstrikes against Syria.

Though prospects for approval appear to be dimming, there still may be a chance to change hearts and minds. The Senate will take up the resolution next week; the House time frame is unclear. In the Senate, Kerry and McCain have different assignments. The former's task is to persuade Democrats normally averse to military action that the legacy of a Democratic president is contingent on their support -- and that human rights considerations make this the proper course of action. McCain is putting his military expertise to work in trying to convince his fellow Republicans that America's prestige and national security are at stake amid the carnage from chemical weapons in Damascus.

McCain hasn't made it easy on the president. Earlier this week, he withheld his support for the initial Senate resolution until it had provisions to bolster Syrian opposition forces, even though he said inaction in the region would be disastrous. McCain was one of only three Republicans on the panel to approve the measure. And while Kerry often praised his old colleague at the hearing Wednesday (the two men embraced there), McCain was sure to press him and the administration on their delayed action.

"When you tell the enemy you're going to attack them, they're obviously going to disperse and try to make it harder," McCain said. "It's ridiculous to think that it's not wise from a pure military standpoint not to warn the enemy that you're going to attack."

McCain hasn't had an easy time of it himself back home. He was met at a Thursday town-hall meeting in Phoenix with signs of "Don't Bomb Syria!," according to the Arizona Republic. "You don't respect our view! We didn't send you to get [into a] war for us; we sent you to stop the war," one constituent told him, according to the newspaper. McCain has also urged the president to address the public, perhaps from the Oval Office, to make his case.

Kerry experienced this week just what McCain and other GOP leaders are up against in trying to bring Republicans along. In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan dragged the specter of Benghazi and IRS controversies into the debate, and accused Kerry of forgoing "past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly." Kerry quickly lambasted the congressman, telling him, "I volunteered to fight and that wasn't a cautious thing to do when I did it." Kerry added: "When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama -- I can run a list of them. And I am not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this."

Knowing that their war experiences didn't tip the balance in their favor when they ran for president, Kerry and McCain hope that time on the battlefield and in Congress give them standing now. Both voted nearly a dozen years ago to give a different president, George W. Bush, authority to use military force in Syria's neighbor, Iraq. That doesn't necessarily give them credibility in this case -- Kerry especially, who was wobbly about his vote while campaigning in 2004.

In an interview with MSNBC Thursday evening, Kerry recalled those experiences to make a positive case for action in Syria. "I'm not imprisoned by my memories of or experience in Vietnam, I'm informed by it. And I'm not imprisoned by my memory of how that [Iraq] evidence was used, I'm informed by it."

Both senators have tried to convince members that intervention Syria will be different -- that it will be based on sound intelligence regarding Assad's use of chemical weapons and includes a promise of no prolonged action. But many members -- some 200, according to various counts -- don't yet believe them.

Kerry and McCain each had opposing views about the war in which they fought. In 1971, Kerry famously appeared in front of the Foreign Relations panel he would later chair to accuse the government of war crimes and said, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

The secretary of state recalled that moment in his testimony earlier this week when an anti-war protester interrupted proceedings: "You know the first time I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester."

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