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McCain Makes the Case for Staying in Iraq

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reflects on a century of wars in a speech at the National World War I Museum today in Kansas City, Mo. (AP)

By Juliet Eilperin
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Speaking just a day before Gen. David Petraeus will testify before Congress about progress in the war in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this morning his Democratic rivals' promise to withdraw amounts to "the height of irresponsibility" and "a failure of leadership."

In a 27-minute address at the National World War I Museum here in Kansas City, McCain laid out his most detailed argument for continuing the Iraq occupation in several months. Although he emphasized that he was eager to minimize America's presence there, saying, "Our goal is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops," he argued the U.S. must stay for now in order to capitalize on the military gains it has made over the past year.

"The job of bringing security to Iraq is not finished," the senator said at the event, hosted by Veterans of Foreign Wars. "But there is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq: We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success. ... The fact is, we now have a great opportunity, not only to bring stability and freedom to Iraq, but to make Iraq a pillar of our future strategy for the entire region of the greater Middle East."

Although McCain has planned a series of events in the coming weeks to spotlight the economy, today's speech highlights the extent to which he still sees his political fortunes tied to the war in Iraq. Rather than dwelling on the recent spike in violence there, he pointed to the fact that sectarian violence has declined there since the surge began. Conceding that "four years of a badly conceived military strategy had brought us almost to the point of no return" and that "much more needs to be done" in terms of political progress, McCain said Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and their colleagues were pushing for "a hasty withdrawal from Iraq" that could destabilize the Middle East. That line, along with his comments, "We must put the nation's interests above our own ambitions" and "I do not believe anyone should make promises they cannot keep if elected," drew sustained applause from the friendly audience of nearly 200.

"Some would withdraw regardless of the consequences. Others say that we can withdraw now and then return if trouble starts again. What they are really proposing, if they mean what they say, is a policy of withdraw and re-invade," he said. "I can hardly imagine a more imprudent and dangerous course."

Instead, he said, the United States is "within reach" of its ultimate goal: "the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists."

On the campaign trail, Obama has repeatedly questioned McCain for saying during a January town hall meeting he would be comfortable with U.S. troops staying in Iraq for "a hundred years" as long as soldiers were no longer losing their lives there. Today, McCain made a point of saying he was eager to remove American troops as soon as the country was stable. "I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there," he said, adding the U.S. may achieve victory "perhaps sooner than many imagine."

In order to promote political and economic progress in Iraq, he said, the U.S. not only needs to sustain its military effort there but provide greater reconstruction assistance. Only a "vibrant Iraqi economy," McCain suggested, could sway young Iraqi men away from extremism.

"The Iraqi government can jump-start this process by using a portion of its budget surplus to employ Iraqis in infrastructure projects and in restoring basic services, he said. "The international community should augment Iraqi efforts by broadly enhancing the proven success of micro-finance programs to spur entrepreneurship at local levels throughout the country, and Iraq's Arab neighbors should invest in regional stability by using the fruits of their oil exports to directly invest in Iraq."

These measures, he said, could help ensure that provincial and national elections in Iraq over the next year and a half will be free and fair.

"I know the pain war causes. I understand the frustration caused by our mistakes in this war. And I regret sincerely the additional sacrifices imposed on the brave Americans who defend us," McCain told veterans. "But I also know the toll a lost war takes on an army and on our country's security. By giving General Petraeus and the men and women he has the honor to command the time and support necessary to succeed in Iraq, we have before us a hard road. But it is the right road. And it is necessary and just. Those who disregard the unmistakable progress we have made in the last year and the terrible consequences that would ensue were we to abandon our responsibilities in Iraq have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election."

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By Web Politics Editor  |  April 7, 2008; 12:33 PM ET
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