The most senior retired military officer to back the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, says the first-term U.S. senator will not give Sen. John McCain, a decorated war hero, a pass on the issue of national security in the fall campaign.
"It doesn't take very long to uncover national security issues that McCain is weak on," retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak told The Washington Times.
"For McCain to think he has a monopoly on virtue in the national security issue is going to be shown a pretty flimsy idea very quickly," he said of the probable Republican nominee.
A McCain staffer said the candidate "welcomes" the upcoming debate on military matters and accused Gen. McPeak of ignoring progress in Iraq.
Mr. Obama of Illinois leads Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the delegate count for the Democratic presidential nomination. "In the last month or so, we have kind of transitioned to a national campaign," said Gen. McPeak, an Obama co-chairman.
Republican strategists are counting on Mr. Obama's lack of military experience to drive voters to Mr. McCain at a time when the nation is at war against al Qaeda.
Mr. McCain is a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, who boasts extensive experience in national security issues in Washington.
A Rasmussen poll released Friday showed voters giving Mr. McCain of Arizona a big edge over Mr. Obama on the question of who would make the best commander in chief.
"When it comes to the war in Iraq, McCain is trusted more by 49 percent of voters," the Rasmussen Report said. "Obama is preferred by 37 percent. McCain has an even larger edge - 53 percent to 31 percent - on the broader topic of National Security. These results are little changed from a month ago."
McCain strategists think their candidate's steadfast backing for the war in Iraq will produce dividends on Election Day now that the troop surge appears to be defeating al Qaeda and bolstering the new democratic government in Baghdad.
Likewise, Mr. Obama's vow to meet with any world leader, including those of rogue states, without preconditions, has been hammered by Mr. McCain as naive.
But Gen. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff in the early 1990s and now a private investor, told The Times that both those issues will be assets for Mr. Obama.
"[McCain is] wrong about Iraq, and he's wrong in the past and wrong about his ideas going forward," Gen. McPeak said. "And that's the biggest single national security issue on the table."
Gen. McPeak added, "[McCain] supported the intervention to begin with. Then of course he attacked the execution and he was justified in doing so. But the idea that this was a good concept, poorly executed, won't stand the test of examination.
"Now, it was poorly executed, so he was right about that. But the concept itself was fatally flawed. So he was wrong there. And his idea that all we have to do is execute better and this will turn into a big victory for us is wrong.
"So he's going to have to carry the weight, the tonnage of bad judgment on that particular issue."
On the issue of meeting with rogue leaders, Gen. McPeak predicted that Mr. Obama will turn his much-criticized position into an election benefit.
"[McCain] is wrong about whether or not we ought to talk with people we don't like," the retired four-star general said.
"The whole idea that we shouldn't talk to the Cubans, or the North Koreans or the Iranians because they're not nice boys. I would think by now people would have figured out that is not helpful.
"That hasn't achieved what we needed to achieve in Cuba for the last 50 years. It was a positive disaster in terms of our policy in North Korea.
"Maybe the biggest foreign policy blunder of the Bush administration was to refuse to negotiate with North Korea while they built a half-dozen nuclear weapons.
"This whole idea that diplomacy is attending cocktail parties with your best friends, that's kind of dumb. It's a national security issue that McCain is wrong on."
The intelligence community and the White House tell a different story. North Korea is thought to have built its first nuclear weapons in the 1990s during the Clinton administration.
The Bush administration has engaged in talks with North Korean leaders in partnership with other countries in the region. It has announced a deal under which the North is supposed to abandon atomic weapons research and development.
The Times provided the McCain campaign with a selection of Gen. McPeak's quotes for rebuttal.
Randy Scheunemann, the campaign's director of foreign policy and national security, said in a statement to The Times:
"Our campaign welcomes a debate on national security issues with Senator Obama and his advisers. General McPeak - the same Obama adviser who claims that the problem in America's Middle East policy is pro-Israel sentiment among American voters in Miami and New York - now dishonestly ascribes a view of diplomacy to Senator McCain that he has never advocated or held.
"If General McPeak supports Senator Obama's policy of withdrawing and retreating from Iraq regardless of events on the ground or the advice of military commanders, he knows as little about the realities of securing American interests in the Middle East as he does about American electoral politics."