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McCain Responds to Maliki's Call for an Iraq Withdrawal Timetable

By Michael D. Shear
Sen. John McCain, who has repeatedly derided anyone who advocated a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, now suddenly finds himself in a political box as the American-backed Iraqi leadership yesterday raised the prospect of exactly that.

For the first time on Monday, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement from his office that the two countries should consider deciding the future of American troops with "a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal."

McCain was silent on the comments Monday. But today, his top foreign policy adviser declined to criticize Maliki or distance McCain from him. And they sought to portray Maliki's comments as consistent with the Republican nominee's long-standing position.

"Senator McCain has always said that conditions on the ground -- including the security threats posed by extremists and terrorists, and the ability of Iraqi forces to meet those threats -- would be key determinants in U.S. force levels," said adviser Randy Scheunemann, who criticized Sen. Barack Obama's "constantly shifting positions" on Iraq.

But McCain's position on the question of a specific timetable for withdrawal has been shifting as the candidate moved from the Republican primary into the general election.

In speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and campaign commercials, McCain has said a timetable would provide terrorists the knowledge of how long they have to wait until American troops are gone. He has repeatedly said that setting a date for withdrawal would lead to "chaos, genocide and we will be back with greater sacrifice."

His rhetoric has been withering and aimed at both Democrats and Republicans. During the waning days of the GOP primary, he eviscerated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for a comment that McCain said amounted to support for a timetable.

Romney disputed that, but the damage to his candidacy was unmistakable. Later, McCain turned his fire on Democrats, including Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, accusing them of endangering Americans by advocating a specific timetable for withdrawal.

"It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal," he said in a California speech.

In that speech, McCain offered his "vision" for 2013, by which time he said most of the troops would be gone from Iraq. That was quickly seen by many observers as a timetable for withdrawal by that date.

But immediately after the speech, McCain disputed the idea that he was setting a firm date for withdrawal of troops from Iraq, telling reporters that he is "promising that we will succeed in Iraq" but not promising that troops will come home if that success has not materialized.

"I'm not putting a date on it. It could be next month. It could be next year," he told reporters on the Straight Talk Express bus. "I said by the end of my first term we will have succeeded in Iraq.... This is what I want to achieve. This is what I believe is achievable."

McCain fought Democratic attempts in Congress to legislate the withdrawal of troops. And he famously said troops might be in Iraq for as long as 100 years, though he says that referred to a Korea-like presence, not active fighting like that occurring now.

On Tuesday, McCain's campaign declined to respond directly to the question of whether he now supports the idea of setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

Speaking on MSNBC Tuesday morning, McCain said that "The fact is that we and the Iraqis will deal in what is in the national security interests of both countries. And there is no reason to assume that the Iraqis aren't going to act in what they perceive as their national
interest. I believe we will enact ours and I believe we will all come home."

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 8, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  On the Issues  
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