CLEVELAND — Republican John McCain said President Bush should not be held responsible for the much-criticized "Mission Accomplished" banner five years ago, but he should be blamed for bungling the early months of the war.
On Thursday, the fifth anniversary of Bush's dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier where the banner hung, McCain said, "I thought it was wrong at the time."
"So all I can tell you was that I was the strongest advocate, or one of the strongest advocates, for changing to adopt the surge," McCain told reporters. "And I think that history will judge me by the fact that I thought it was wrong."
McCain said he can't blame Bush for the banner. After shifting explanations, the White House eventually said the "Mission Accomplished" phrase referred to the carrier's crew completing its 10-month mission, not the military completing its mission in Iraq.
Instead, he said Bush should be blamed for comments like that of L. Paul Bremer, the former chief of the U.S. occupation government in Iraq, who pledged that the U.S. military would crush die-hard Saddamist "dead-enders," and of Vice President Dick Cheney, who declared the insurgency "in its last throes."
"Do I blame him for that specific banner? I can't," McCain said. "But I do say that statements are made, 'a few dead-enders,' 'last throes,' those are, as opposed to the banner, direct statements which were contradicted by the facts on the ground."
McCain advocated early on for a troop-increase strategy that eventually was adopted by Bush, and he is an important ally of Bush's war strategy today.
But Democrat Barack Obama said McCain misled the public along with Bush.
"Five years after George Bush declared 'mission accomplished' and John McCain told the American people that 'the end is very much in sight' in Iraq, we have lost thousands of lives, spent half a trillion dollars, and we're no safer," Obama said in a statement released by his presidential campaign.
Rival Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that the "Mission Accomplished" anniversary comes as it has become clear that the war's "planning and strategy was flawed."
"Our troops deserved and deserve better," Clinton said in a statement. "The path forward is to use American diplomacy and our allies to allow U.S. forces to come home, and turn responsibility back to Iraq and its people."