Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he doesn't want U.S. forces to stay in Iraq one minute more than necessary but that his Democratic opponents' withdrawal promises are irresponsible and threaten American security.
"Some would withdraw regardless of the consequences. Others say that we can withdraw now and then return if trouble starts again," the presumptive Republican standard-bearer said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo.
"What [the Democrats] are really proposing, if they mean what they say, is a policy of withdraw and re-invade," Mr. McCain said, without naming Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois or any other specific Democrat.
Mr. McCain said he wants U.S. forces withdrawn as soon as Iraq is stable. "I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there," which may be "perhaps sooner than many imagine," he said.
"To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility," Mr. McCain said. "It is a failure of leadership."
The senator from Arizona timed his remarks to raise the curtain on testimony by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, before two Senate committees today and two House committees tomorrow.
Mr. McCain's Democratic opponents in the presidential race are determined to widen his vulnerability on his close association with the war.
"John McCain was wrong about the war from the beginning," Mr. Obama said yesterday in response to the McCain speech. "He's wrong to call for more resources in Iraq while the American people are struggling, and he's wrong to support a 100-year occupation of a country that needs to take responsibility for its own future."
Democrats have condemned Mr. McCain for his 100-year comment, though Mr. McCain was saying Iraq could become a nation like South Korea, where U.S. forces have been stationed for more than 50 years guarding the borders of a stable country without insurgents.
Mr. McCain crafted himself as the hawk from the campaign's beginning and his Democratic opponents as the doves. But he also reminded his friendly audience yesterday that he long criticized the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war as inept, saying that "four years of a badly conceived military strategy had brought us almost to the point of no return" under the Pentagon leadership of Donald H. Rumsfeld.
He has hailed the surge of 30,000 troops to the 130,000 others in Iraq in an attempt to reduce insurgent violence. Yesterday, he reiterated that a strong U.S. military presence is still needed because Iraq's politicians have not built a sufficient defense with their own armed forces.
Without mentioning the current spike in violence, he said Iraq is generally on the right track. He noted that from June through March, "sectarian and ethnic violence" has fallen by 90 percent and "civilian deaths and deaths of coalition forces fell by 70 percent."
Mr. McCain maintained that reduced violence "has opened the way for a return to something approaching normal political and economic life for the average Iraqi."
That progress would be lost with "a hasty withdrawal from Iraq," he said, garnering applause from his audience of about 200 at the National World War I Museum.
He also suggested that a quick withdrawal that Democrats favor could leave Iraq vulnerable to Iran.
"We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success," he said.