McCain: If I had been elected president in 2000, we might not have gone to war in Iraq

In which Mr. Intervention imagines a more dovish alternate history of the past 15 years, starring himself. Er, is Maverick now … to the left of the next Democratic nominee on the Iraq war?

Here’s what he told Tapper yesterday:

“You’ll find this surprising,” he said, “but I think I would’ve been more reluctant to commit American troops.”…

“If presented with that same evidence today, I would vote the same way,” McCain said of his vote to deploy troops in the country. “I respected and trusted the Secretary of State, Colin Powell. But it’s obvious now, in retrospect, that Saddam Hussein – although he had used weapons of mass destruction – did not have the inventory that we seem to have evidence of. Which now looking back on it, with the benefit of hindsight, (the evidence) was very flimsy.”

If he had been president, McCain said, “I think I would have challenged the evidence with greater scrutiny. I think that with my background with the military and knowledge of national security with these issues that I hope that I would have been able to see through the evidence that was presented at the time.”

McCain specifically cited one of the sources of the faulty intelligence. “The guy named ‘Curveball’ that we were relying on turned out to be some guy in a German prison that was an alcoholic.”

Why didn’t he challenge the evidence with greater scrutiny in his role as senator? He seems to be suggesting that the president has a higher duty of due diligence before putting troops’ lives on the line than the individual members of Congress do when they vote on whether to use military force. I don’t know why he thinks that. Or is he saying that Bush, as commander-in-chief, was privy to certain dubious evidence that Congress wasn’t, which would have set off alarm bells for President McCain but which Senator McCain had no access to? In that case, why didn’t senators have access? A vote as important as an AUMF needs to be fully informed.

Here’s what he said as a candidate in 2000, by the way:

Q: What area of international policy would you change immediately?

A: Our policies concerning rogue states: Iraq, Libya, North Korea-those countries that continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. I’d institute a policy that I call “rogue state rollback.” I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.

He’s not talking about putting U.S. boots on the ground in Baghdad there, but clearly he had Iraq in his crosshairs — and that was two years before the public amped up to super-hawkishness towards the Middle East after 9/11. Would President McCain really have stuck to fomenting internal rebellion in Iraq rather than bringing down America’s hammer on Saddam? Maybe he would have, but I’m skeptical.

The oddest thing about this, of course, is that Maverick remains a hawk for all seasons to this day, even towards maelstroms like Syria where lesser hawks see no obvious benefit to getting involved. A man who, by his own admission, has been burned by bad intel and dubious foreign actors with their own agendas might think twice about intervening in Syria to help a coalition of “moderate” Sunni rebels that may or may not functionally exist. But no, he’s full speed ahead. Click the image to watch.