Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sen. John McCain said Friday that Sen. Barack Obama has “failed” the test of leadership posed by Iraq, ridiculing his Democratic presidential rival for continuing to reject the troop surge even as he acknowledges it has helped stabilize the troubled nation.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign was struggling to explain why he announced andthen canceled a visit with wounded U.S. troops at Landstuhl RegionalMedical Center in Germany - and the questions over his decision threatened to undo the good press that his tour of the Middle East and Europe has produced so far.

Mr. McCain, using his strongest language yet in a speech to a veterans group in Denver, attacked Mr. Obama’s judgment for opposing the addition of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Iraq last year.

“Fortunately, Senator Obama failed, not our military. We rejected the audacity of hopelessness, and we were right,” Mr. McCain said, mocking the title of Mr. Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”“Senator Obama said this week that even knowing what he knows today that he still would have opposed the surge. In retrospect, given the opportunity to choose between failure and success, he chooses failure. I cannot conceive of a commander in chief making that choice.”

The Republican accused Mr. Obama of actively trying to undermine the surge by voting against funding for the troops.

“He didn’t just advocate defeat, he tried to legislate it. When his efforts failed, he continued to predict the failure of our troops,” Mr. McCain said, painting a dark picture of what Iraq would look like if Mr. Obama’s troop withdrawal strategy, rather than the surge, had been followed.

Mr. Obama’s campaign said Mr. McCain’s attacks were “not worthy of the campaign he claimed he would run” and sent out a statement from former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor winner, who said he and Mr. McCain were both wrong to have backed the war from the start.

“Senator Obama’s judgment six years ago looks a whole lot better today than either Senator McCain’s or mine was back then,” he said.

He added that Mr. Obama’s plans for a timetable for withdrawal “will allow the responsible redeployment of our combat brigades out of Iraq while preserving our commitment to remain a strong ally of the Iraqi people.”

Meanwhile, the two campaigns continued to spar over what was a week full of gaffes, missteps and countercharges, led by Mr. Obama’s conflicting explanations of why he canceled his visit with injured U.S. troops, planned for the end of his stay in Germany. Landstuhl is the largest U.S. military hospital outside of the U.S., and receives many of the wounded troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Struggling to explain the decision, Obama campaign strategist Robert Gibbs briefed the press traveling on the campaign plane three times. He said while the Pentagon approved the trip, it informed the campaign this week it would be considered a campaign visit, which meant only Mr. Obama and official Senate staff could attend, and the press would not be allowed.

“Senator Obama had made the decision that we were not going to have wounded men and women become involved in a campaign event or one that might be perceived as a campaign event,” Mr. Gibbs said.

But he also said the campaign was led to believe the visit was prohibited by military rules because some would see it as a campaign event.

News reports said military officials were surprised at the cancellation and had expected Mr. Obama to attend in his official capacity as a U.S. senator.

The McCain campaign sent out comments by conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, who said Mr. Obama really rejected the visit because he couldn’t bring the press with him. The Republican National Committee also sent reporters a list of different explanations the campaign has given for the cancellation.

For his part, Mr. McCain was hit this week for repeated gaffes about the situation in Iraq.

After erroneously saying the surge set the stage for the Sunni Awakening that helped contribute to stability - in fact the awakening came before the surge - Mr. McCain on Friday said Mr. Obama’s withdrawal plans would have undermined that effort by exposing key U.S. allies in the awakening: “Al Qaeda would have killed the Sunni sheiks who had begun to cooperate with us, and the ‘Sunni Awakening’ would have been strangled at birth.”

In fact, months after the surge was in effect, the key Sunni leader, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was killed, and it did not derail the efforts.

Also on Friday Mr. McCain met with the Dalai Lama in Aspen, Colo., where the exiled Tibetan leader is addressing a conference on Tibetan culture. The candidate called on China to release Tibetan political prisoners and “engage in meaningful dialogue on genuine autonomy for Tibet.”

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, continued the European part of his trip with a brief stop in France, meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy and holding a joint press conference. The men heaped praise on one another, and the French leader said he and the Illinois senator share “lots of convergence of opinion,” adding “the French love the Americans.”

“The adventure of Barack Obama, it is a story, which speaks to the heart of French people and speaks to the heart of Europeans,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

Mr. Obama said Mr. Sarkozy, who called him a “buddy” in a newspaper interview published before his Paris arrival, “captures the enthusiasm and the energy of France.”

Mr. Sarkozy offered an implied dig at President Bush, saying there was a sense of “great impatience” for the next president to take the oath of office so the man could work toward climate change and “peace in the world.”

Mr. Obama said his foreign trip has demonstrated the European allies “are oriented toward working effectively with America,” and the “tensions and differences we’ve had … are in the past.”

He also said Iran must freeze its nuclear enrichment program or the international community “will ratchet up pressure with stronger and increased sanctions.”

Mr. Obama told reporters his speech to more than 200,000 in Berlin the previous day was meant for a “broad European audience” and noted there is wide American interest in seeing an improved trans-Atlantic relationship.

“I think the American voter understands that problems like climate change or energy or terrorism cannot be solved by any one country alone. That it has to be a group effort,” he said. “That’s why establishing and strengthening the kinds of partnerships we’ve discussed is so important.”

cChristina Bellantoni reported from London.

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