McCain: Timeline of Iraq withdrawal "not too important"

Democrats are taking advantage of some unartful comments from John McCain, but his campaign says that his words are being twisted.

Published June 11, 2008 4:56PM (EDT)

During an appearance on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday morning, John McCain got himself into some seriously hot water. Asked by host Matt Lauer, "If [the U.S. troop surge is] working, Senator, do you now have a better estimate of when American forces can come home from Iraq?" To that, McCain responded, "No, but that's not too important. What's important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine."

Democrats have apparently sensed an opportunity in McCain's words; they're hitting him hard. Barack Obama's campaign set up a conference call, deploying John Kerry and two of Obama's foreign policy advisors to speak to reporters, and Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden have issued statements decrying what McCain said.

During the conference call, Kerry and one Obama advisor called McCain "confused." "It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs of Americans and particularly the families of troops who are over there. To them it's the most important thing in the world when they come home," Kerry said. "It's a policy for staying in Iraq."

In his statement, Reid said, "McCain's statement today that withdrawing troops doesn't matter is a crystal clear indicator that he just doesn't get the grave national-security consequences of staying the course ... We need a smart change in strategy to make America more secure, not a commitment to indefinitely keep our troops in an intractable civil war." And Biden said, "Senator McCain's comment is evidence that he is totally out of touch with the needs of our troops and the national security needs of our nation. I think many of our brave soldiers and their families would disagree that it's 'not too important' when they come home."

McCain's campaign maintains that he's being taken out of context, that what he said on Wednesday is no different from his long-held position on the issue. In one statement, the McCain camp said, "Our friends on the opposite side of the aisle have a long history of attempting to twist Sen. McCain's words on Iraq. The fact that Sen. McCain opposes a timeline for withdrawal and is principally concerned about the safety of American troops and the security of Iraq is pretty much 'dog bites man.'" In a later statement, issued as the story began to blow up, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds got more personal, saying:

The Obama campaign is embarking on a false attack on John McCain to hide their own candidate's willingness to disregard facts on the ground in pursuit of withdrawal no matter what the costs. John McCain was asked if he had a "better estimate" for a timeline for withdrawal. As John McCain has always said, that is not as important as conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders in the field. Any reasonable person who reads the full transcript would see this and reject the Obama campaign's attempt to manipulate, twist and distort the truth.

On the issue of the context, and the allegation of distortion, McCain's camp has a valid point. The Arizona senator's phrasing on this was bad, undoubtedly -- it sounded really quite callous, and it'll come back to hurt him. But from the context it's clear that he was just repeating what he's said before, which is that he thinks that at some point violence in Iraq will have basically ended and U.S. troops will stop taking casualties, but that there may still be an American presence in the country, as there is in countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea. And there has really been no major outcry from the American public about the continued deployment in those countries. (This position of McCain's was also the genesis of the "100 years" remark that's gotten him so much flak.)

If anything, this seems to me reminiscent of the controversy over a poorly worded joke Kerry himself made during the 2006 campaign. At the time, he said, "You know, education -- if you make the most of it, you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." The joke was intended to be at President Bush's expense, but Republicans twisted it, saying Kerry was poking fun at members of the military, and used it to attack him and other Democrats.

Here's the video of McCain's remarks:

Update: I meant to say, by the way, that it remains unclear exactly how McCain intends to get us to this state in Iraq where the U.S. presence there could be analogous to the U.S. presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Obviously, that's a very big hole in his argument.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Iraq Iraq War John Mccain R-ariz. Middle East