The flip-flop that wasn't

McCain vs. Clinton on Iraq.

Published August 24, 2007 11:10AM (EDT)

Remember when John McCain had a reputation for "straight talk"?

The struggling GOP presidential candidate claimed the other day that he was "the greatest critic of the initial four years, three and a half years" of the Iraq war, despite having made a string of Cheney-esque pronouncements before -- "the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators" -- and after the war started.

Now McCain is on to something new. In a statement released by his campaign Thursday, he laid into Hillary Clinton for what he sees as an instant flip-flop on the "surge."

"On Monday," McCain says in the statement, "Sen. Clinton told an audience at the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the surge of troops in Iraq was 'working.' Now, after taking heat from anti-war activists and her primary opponents, Sen. Clinton says the surge 'has failed' and that we should 'begin the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.' The fact that the New York senator can reverse her position on an issue of grave importance to our national security in a few days sends the wrong signal to our enemies in Iraq and our own troops on the ground."

If McCain were right, we might agree with him. He isn't. As we noted earlier this week, Clinton did not tell the VFW convention that "the surge of troops in Iraq was 'working.'" She said: "We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, it's working." She then went on to say to say that it's "time the Iraqi government took responsibility for themselves and their country" and that the "best way" to honor the U.S. troops who have served in Iraq is "by beginning to bring them home and making sure that when they come home that we have everything ready for them."

Although some Democrats -- especially John Edwards -- have taken Clinton to task for the "it's working" snippet in her VFW speech, the larger context of Clinton's remarks made it perfectly clear that she was saying that the military aspect of the "surge" is "working" in "some areas" but that the Iraqi government still isn't doing the work that the "surge" was supposed to have made possible. Clinton's follow-up statement later in the week -- "The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution. It has failed." -- simply made the same point more clearly.

No matter how she put it, what Clinton said isn't a particularly novel concept. It's pretty much exactly what the new National Intelligence Estimate says, and it tracks what the president's ambassador to Iraq was saying in Baghdad this week. "The whole premise of course of the surge was ... to bring levels of violence down and keep them down so that there would be the time and space for political leadership to get on with the business of national reconciliation," ambassador Ryan Crocker said. Crocker said that the "first part" of the "surge" strategy "clearly is happening," but that the Iraqi government's "progress on national-level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned."

And while neither Crocker nor the NIE called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it was hardly two-faced for Clinton to have done so. Again, here's Clinton at the VFW convention: The "best way" to honor the service of U.S. troops is "by beginning to bring them home and making sure that when they come home that we have everything ready for them." And here's Clinton's follow-up statement: "Our best hope of fostering political progress in Iraq is to begin the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops."

A flip-flop? While it's true that Clinton's views on the war have evolved over time, these two particular statements sound pretty consistent to us. But then, we're not the ones who predicted in December 2005 that, by December 2006, the United States "will have made a fair amount of progress" in Iraq "if we stay the course." That was you, Sen. McCain.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq War John Mccain R-ariz.