Dem Attack On McCain's Iraq Record: Is It Fair?

08/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, the Democratic National Committee blasted out to reporters a memo of selected quotes designed to show the John McCain not only making unrealized predictions on Iraq, but also parroting "Bush talking points," praising "Donald Rumsfeld's conduct of the war," and presenting a far-too-rosy outlook for U.S. troops.

Is it fair? A comprehensive look at more than 200 press releases, statements and interviews conducted by McCain from the start of the war through the beginning of the troop surge (which the Huffington Post did) shows that the Senator - as his campaign has frequently reminded voters - was quick to note a lack of troops on the ground. McCain was also critical of Rumsfeld and (to a lesser extent) Bush. But his pre-war predictions were drastically off-base. And when things began to turn sour he quickly attempted to re-write history, blaming the administration for not being honest with the American public when he himself had offered similarly optimistic assurances.

Like the majority of his congressional brethren, McCain was dismissive of the potential pitfalls of war in Iraq. During a March 2003 appearance on Hardball -- which McCain's Senate office touted in a press release -- the Arizona Republican was asked if he believed that "the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?"

"Absolutely," he replied. "Absolutely... Not only that, they'll be relieved that he's not in the neighborhood because he has invaded his neighbors on several occasions."

The Senator would similarly brush away concerns about a lack of allies, citing America's intervention in Kosovo. We went in "without the United Nations," McCain said, and were welcomed for putting a stop to "the slaughter of Muslims."

After the U.S. overtook Baghdad and the armed forces made quick security gains, McCain expressed even greater confidence in the Bush administration's strategy. Asked by Bill O'Reilly during a May 2003 appearance whether he would have done anything differently in the run-up to the war, the Senator replied: "Nothing... The president has handled this, in my view, skillfully."

O'Reilly pressed further: "Are you confident that after we occupy Iraq, allied forces occupy Iraq, that they will start to throw out all of these anthrax vials, V.X. gas, are you confident that's going to come out?"

"I am confident that that will come out," McCain replied. "Bill, he had too much unaccounted for in 1998. There were tons of nerve gas and other chemicals and other weapons that he just never accounted for."

Those weapons never did "come out," although McCain was hardly alone in his suspicions.

Within months, McCain's disposition had begun to change. Following a trip to Iraq in August 2003, he started sounding the alarm about a lack of troop presence and promised to "mount a heavy campaign" to raise numbers in meetings with Condoleezza Rice and other White House officials.

"We need to tell the American people directly, and I think they'll support it,' he said at the time. "We must win this conflict. We need a lot more military, and I'm convinced we need to spend a lot more money.'"

Soon after his trip, McCain began to disparage the people he had once praised. The run-up to the war that the Arizona Republican had described as faultless was now ripe for critique. The pre-war concerns that he had was blithely ignored he now raised as if they were unique policy outlooks.

"Should we have done things differently?" McCain wrote in a June 2004 article, titled "Hard Truths," in The New Republic. "Of course. We should have worked harder before the war to get more European allies on board and offered greater political support to those nations that did join our coalition. We should have invaded with more troops, acted more quickly to stop looting, stabilized key cities, secured arms depots and borders, and established checkpoints in key areas. We should have handed power more rapidly to Iraqis. But were we wrong to invade? No."

And yet, for all his repentance about the invasion, McCain frequently insisted that U.S. forces were close to turning the corner. Before his New Republic essay, the Senator wrote an op-ed in the Arizona Republic in which he praised the capturing of Saddam Hussein as the moment U.S. troops "cut off the head" of the insurgent resistance.

"By ending the possibility of Saddam's return to power, we have made it much more difficult for Saddam's thugs to motivate their fellow Iraqis to attack coalition forces in his name," he wrote. "We have defeated their strategic goal of regime restoration. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said that the capture of Saddam had not made America safer. I strongly disagree."

In a well-remembered speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute in October 2005, McCain declared that Iraqi elections signaled the end-point for "terrorists" and their "ilk."

A pattern emerged. At the same time the Senator was offering sunny forecasts for Iraq's future, he was presenting himself as a realist on the war's difficulties. Months before the AEI address in which he framed the elections as a turning point, and well more than a year after he hailed the capture of Saddam, McCain admonished the Bush administration for being overly optimistic about those exact same events.

"I certainly understand [the public's] frustration," he told NBC's Tim Russert, "and, of course, too often we've been told that--the American people have been told that we're at a turning point, whether it be the capture of Saddam Hussein, or Uday and Qusay, or the elections, what the American people should have been told, and should be told... [is that] it's long, it's hard, it's tough. It's very tough."

Despite these inconsistencies - and certainly Barack Obama has had his share of misstatements, policy changes, and rhetorical blunders on Iraq - McCain has been relatively unfailing in his call for more troops in Iraq. In a February 2005, appearance on Meet The Press, he argued that the "numbers" were "probably enough" and that it "was about two years ago at the beginning when we didn't have enough troops." But in and around that time - and more vocally during the run up to the surge - McCain was sounding the loudest alarm about the lack of armed forces on the ground.

Taken as a whole, a review of McCain's public statements on Iraq suggests that, like much of the country, he held an overly optimistic view of the prosecution. When things turned sour, he deflected much of the blame on a Bush administration that he once insisted had done everything right. But, whether it was flexibility or flip-flopping, he has also demonstrated a willingness to revise his judgments. In a March 2003 Nightline Town Hall, McCain was asked whether a long-term presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East was something the U.S. could stomach. The answer would seem anathema to his foreign policy today.

"We're not going to keep our guard people permanently there," he told Ted Koppel. "We are certainly, certainly not going to keep troops indefinitely in Arab countries. Everybody knows that... there's a huge difference between having our troops deployed to a makeshift kind of a situation in an Arab country, than it is in the comfortable surroundings of a base in Europe. And we have called up thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of reservists. And we simply can't keep them on indefinitely. And it's just not proper or appropriate to do that."

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