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McCain Strongly Rejected Long-Term Iraq Presence: "Bring Them All Home"

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When it comes to getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, Sen. John McCain was for the idea before he was against it.

Three years before the Arizona Republican argued on the campaign trail that U.S. forces could be in Iraq for 100 years in the absence of violence, he decried the very concept of a long-term troop presence.

In fact, when asked specifically if he thought the U.S. military should set up shop in Iraq along the lines of what has been established in post-WWII Germany or Japan -- something McCain has repeatedly advocated during the campaign -- the senator offered nothing short of a categorical "no."

"I would hope that we could bring them all home," he said on MSNBC. "I would hope that we would probably leave some military advisers, as we have in other countries, to help them with their training and equipment and that kind of stuff."

Host Chris Matthews pressed McCain on the issue. "You've heard the ideological argument to keep U.S. forces in the Middle East. I've heard it from the hawks. They say, keep United States military presence in the Middle East, like we have with the 7th Fleet in Asia. We have the German...the South Korean component. Do you think we could get along without it?"

McCain held fast, rejecting the very policy he urges today. "I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence," he responded. "And I don't pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be."

The January 2005 comments, which have not surfaced previously during the presidential campaign, represent a stunning contrast to McCain's current rhetoric.

They also run squarely against his image as having a steadfast, unwavering idea for U.S. policy in Iraq -- and provide further evidence to those, including some prominent GOP foreign policy figures in the "realist" camp, who believe McCain is increasingly adopting policies shared by neoconservatives.

Finally, the comments undercut much of the criticism the senator has launched at his Democratic and even Republican opponents.

On the campaign trail, for example, McCain has accused Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of a "failure of leadership" by advocating a policy of drawing down troops. But in the MSNBC interview, McCain was arguing that U.S. "visibility" was detrimental to the Iraq mission and that Iraqis were responding negatively to America's presence - positions held by both Obama and Clinton.

Somewhere along the way, McCain's position changed. Perhaps twice. As Think Progress reported, in August 2007, as the troops surge was underway, McCain told the Charlie Rose Show that the Korea model was "exactly" the right template for U.S. forces in Iraq. Only three months later, and on the same show, he completely reversed himself.

"Do you think that this - Korea, South Korea is an analogy of where Iraq might be," Rose asked in November 2007.

"I don't think so," replied McCain.

"Even if there are no casualties?" Rose chimed in.

"No," said McCain. "But I can see an American presence for a while. But eventually I think because of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws."

Then, in the lead up to the New Hampshire primary, the senator famously said that he wouldn't mind seeing the U.S. in Iraq for a hundred years, "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." And when his political opponents used that statement against him, McCain responded by saying he was drawing an analogy to the current military presence in Japan, Germany and South Korea.

And yet, when he was asked by Matthews in 2005, if he "would you be happy with [Iraq] being the home of a U.S. garrison" like Germany, McCain again said no.

The McCain campaign did not return a request for comment.

UPDATE: On Tuesday morning, MSNBC aired video of McCain's 2005 remarks:

LATE UPDATE: The McCain campaign and Marc Ambinder note that earlier in the Matthews' interview, the Senator argued that:

Sure we`re going to come home. But the fact is that the key to it is not when the troops come home. It is when we stop reading -- today, Shuster just reported four brave young Marines were killed. It is the casualties that creates the discontent amongst Americans. We`ve been in Bosnia for, what, 10, 12, years, Kosovo for 10 years, South Korea for 50 years. Americans aren`t upset about that. But we have got to get the casualty rate down. And that`s the transfer of well-trained and well-equipped Iraqis to handle the security situation.

Ambinder argues that, "the full context of the interview he gave in 2005 suggests that he modeled a long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq on South Korea, albeit with a big difference: a major corps would not necessarily have to embed itself in the country."

Two points, however, remain. McCain, in Matthews' follow-up question (and the Rose interview) did specifically reject the South Korea model. More significantly, there still seems to be an obvious friction between what the Senator said in 2005 and what he is arguing on the campaign trail. Do American forces stay in Iraq, in some capacity, for "maybe 100 years" after violence dies down, or do they leave the country once the violence cedes?

Ambinder says that under McCain, "Soldiers" would merely be "euphamized as 'military advisers.'" But McCain did argue in 2005 that "visibility" was a problem to the U.S. mission.

The McCain campaign, at this point in time, has not returned request for comment on the last question.