A McCain flip-flop on Iraq?

posted at 11:55 am on April 29, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

Sam Stein at the Huffington Post has what he believes is a reversal on the long-term prospects for an American presence in Iraq, based on an appearance by John McCain in 2005 on Hardball. McCain told Chris Matthews at that time that he didn’t see a Germany-like presence in Iraq for the US in one portion of the interview, which seems to contradict his stance today:

Three years before the Arizona Republican argued on the campaign trail that U.S. forces could be in Iraq for 100 years in the absence of violence, he decried the very concept of a long-term troop presence.

In fact, when asked specifically if he thought the U.S. military should set up shop in Iraq along the lines of what has been established in post-WWII Germany or Japan — something McCain has repeatedly advocated during the campaign — the senator offered nothing short of a categorical “no.”

“I would hope that we could bring them all home,” he said on MSNBC. “I would hope that we would probably leave some military advisers, as we have in other countries, to help them with their training and equipment and that kind of stuff.”

MS-NBC doesn’t mind promoting this either, as the clip below shows. Note that the announcer misrepresents McCain’s current position as “100 years of war”:

Here’s the actual transcript that includes the context for the topic (emphases mine):

MATTHEWS: As a policy suggestion, is it something that we all want the world to know we`re eventually coming home and we might as well argue about when or…

MCCAIN: Sure we`re going to come home.

But the fact is that the key to it is not when the troops come home. It is when we stop reading — today, Shuster just reported four brave young Marines were killed. It is the casualties that creates the discontent amongst Americans. We`ve been in Bosnia for, what, 10, 12, years, Kosovo for 10 years, South Korea for 50 years. Americans aren`t upset about that.

But we have got to get the casualty rate down. And that`s the transfer of well-trained and well-equipped Iraqis to handle the security situation.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Would you be happy — we`ve been there to help get them democracy started. But would you be happy with that being the home of a U.S. garrison, like Guantanamo or Germany all those years, where we have 50,000 troops permanently stationed in that country?

MCCAIN: No. I would hope that we could bring them all home. I would hope that we would probably leave some military advisers, as we have in other countries, to help them with their training and equipment and that kind of stuff.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But you`ve heard the ideological argument to keep U.S. forces in the Middle East. I`ve heard it from the hawks. They say, keep United States military presence in the Middle East, like we have with the 7th Fleet in Asia. We have the German — the North Korean — the South Korean component. Do you think we could get along without it?

MCCAIN: I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence.

And I don`t pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be.

MATTHEWS: So no Guantanamo in Iraq?

MCCAIN: I don`t see any reason for it. I believe that Iraqi military is going to have to require a lot of equipment and training from the U.S. And so that would require U.S. military advisers.

The McCain team has pushed back against this latest criticism, but in this case it sounds warranted. Granted, I believe that McCain is right now and was wrong in 2005, but clearly his position has changed. In 2005 he wanted to “get along without [a Germany-like presence]“, and in 2008 he envisions it for a significant period of time in order to keep pressure on the radical Islamist terrorists.

How does McCain address this? First, the Iraqis themselves appear to want the American presence to remain, albeit with a smaller footprint and reduced responsibilities. Our presence has become a lot more appreciated by Sunnis and Shi’ites since 2005 as well, and no one can argue that the operational conditions have not greatly changed since 2005. Given that opportunity, why would we want to leave a strategic position in a region critical to our national interest? I’m less interested in 2005 than I am in 2008, especially with Iranian muscle-flexing and nuke-building threatening our allies and our interests in southwest Asia.

McCain can address this by reminding people that nations do best by remaining open to opportunities to strengthen their position against their enemies, and the Maliki government has given us the opportunity to do that. We have to look to our position in 2008, not 2005, and the Democrats refuse to do that.

Update (AP): So, if I understand the left’s position correctly, McCain’s willing to spend 100 years in Iraq now, which of course is bad, but he didn’t used to be, which … is also bad. Reminds me of this McClatchy story about the burgeoning power of the Revolutionary Guard inside Iraq that’s getting some play on nutroots blogs this morning. Yesterday’s narrative: Iran isn’t causing trouble in Iraq, wingnuts. Today’s narrative: Thanks for handing Iraq over to Iran, wingnuts. Tomorrow’s narrative: Whatever your imagination can muster, so long as the blame lands squarely at Wingnut HQ.

The significance of the clip, per Stein, is that it proves McCain’s alternately (a) a flip-flopper, (b) a newly minted neoconservative stooge, or (c) a hypocrite for criticizing opponents of occupation. As regards (a) and (b), if Maverick’s changing his position for opportunistic reasons then he desperately needs to consult some polls: He’s swimming very much against the tide of electoral opinion with his war support (as the left never fails to remind us), which means either he sincerely believes what he’s saying or that Norman Podhoretz’s opinion is more important to him than the presidency. Which is it, do you suppose? As for (c), Iraq 2008 isn’t Iraq 2005, just as Iraq 2005 wasn’t Iraq 2003, just as Iraq 2003 wasn’t Iraq 1998 — another point the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton in particular, usually can be trusted to make themselves to excuse their endless saber-rattling against Saddam Hussein during the Clinton administration. If this really is the best they can do against McCain — accusing him of not being the crazed, knee-jerk hawk they were accusing him of being yesterday — they’ve got bigger problems than I thought.


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Of course this was said before it became clear that 1) Iran will not leave a democratic Iraq alone and 2) that the surge, properly executed, is actually generating stability and goodwill towards US forces.

SPCOlympics on April 29, 2008 at 12:10 PM

Exactly. Ultimately, we are in Iraq only because the Iraqi government allows us to be there. If one day they said, “You know what, please go,” we would go.

indythinker on April 29, 2008 at 12:10 PM

Pretty weak compared to the fake handoff into the line made by both Her Majesty and Barry regarding NAFTA. Circumstances change and Iran has to be in the forefront of our planning, since they’ve successfully flipped the bird to all negotiations.

a capella on April 29, 2008 at 12:11 PM

Will someone in the media ask Hillary most obvious question!
“Mrs Clinton, with your plan to withdraw all our troops from Iraq within 30 days, 60 days or 2 years as she said them all at different times),what will happen to Iraq the days and weeks after we leave?”

malkinmania on April 29, 2008 at 12:12 PM

Do/did Germans (Japanese and South Koreans, for that matter) view the US troops stationed there as “occupiers”?

No matter how ‘small’ our footprint in the ME, even if there are no combat troops, all of them engineers for re-construction, there will always be a significant percentage of mooslems view us as ‘occupying their territory’.

Sir Napsalot on April 29, 2008 at 12:17 PM

How does McCain address this?

First thing – He should apologize to Mitt Romney for doing to him what the DNC and the media is now doing to McCain.

After that he should just admit the situation on the ground has changed his view.

Only an idgit would not adjust to the world around them.

EJDolbow on April 29, 2008 at 12:17 PM

Apr 29 11:20 AM US/Central
By FLYOVER COUNTRY
Associated Press Writer

“Republican candidate for president, John McCain (R-AZ) today announced his plan to begin a gradual drawdown of US troops in Iraq to pre-Surge levels. He intends to supplement the Iraqi forces fighting in Sadr City with battalions of Barbie dolls, supported by two platoons of Bratz Special Forces. This move is viewed by many as politically saavy, since it allows McCain to reconcile his 2005 stance of ‘bring all the troops home’ with his more hawkish 2008 stance of ‘a long-term presence’ to stabilize the region. Iranian officials are loudly decrying the proposal as more neo-con American war-mongering. ‘Dirka Dirka, Muhammad Jihad,’ said Iranian President Ahmadinewhatshisname, apparently consumed by paroxysms brought on by exposure to the soft, fleshy temptations of Mattel’s most famous harlot. Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki is already proclaiming ‘Operation Unrealistic Expectations of Beauty’ a resounding success. More on this as the story develops…”

Flyover Country on April 29, 2008 at 12:22 PM

After that he should just admit the situation on the ground has changed his view.

Do you think the situation on the ground changed his view, or the fact he is going after more center left voters has changed his view?
The one issue where McCain sounded like a conservative; the one issue McCain supporters loved to pound his critics with because he was so much better on the war than the 2 democrats…now he’s changing his mind. Sounds a little like Hillary does when she’s not pandering directly to the left.
Who was it that said that it’s only a matter of time before McCain flips on his signature issue, as he’s flipped on so many conservative positions over the last 8 years? Oh yeah, that was me. Course, I’m just a wingnut. A kamikaze republican. I guess insanity gives access to amazing insights. Or maybe not having my head up John McCain’s backside keeps my thinking a little clearer.
He’s getting polling showing he’s making progress with Democrats; so, he turns more away from the GOP. It’s not even the general yet, and we’re getting the big dumpola. You think it’s bad now? Wait til he’s in office. Well, at least he’s got an ‘R’ next to his name. That makes up for all of it, I’m sure. Have fun in November.

austinnelly on April 29, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Of course this was said before it became clear that 1) Iran will not leave a democratic Iraq alone and 2) that the surge, properly executed, is actually generating stability and goodwill towards US forces.

SPCOlympics on April 29, 2008 at 12:10 PM

yep

funky chicken on April 29, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Will someone in the media ask Hillary most obvious question!
“Mrs Clinton, with your plan to withdraw all our troops from Iraq within 30 days, 60 days or 2 years as she said them all at different times),what will happen to Iraq the days and weeks after we leave?”

malkinmania on April 29, 2008 at 12:12 PM

She has actually been asked this question many times in debates. But Hillary Clinton always responds by dodging questions and specifics – it’s what she does.

here is the latest example from the last debate: http://www.redlasso.com/ClipPlayer.aspx?id=e423d4b1-104b-4a3e-997f-01e922cb5d6b

PaulD on April 29, 2008 at 12:25 PM

F*ck it, McCain!

SoCalInfidel on April 29, 2008 at 12:26 PM

After that he should just admit the situation on the ground has changed his view.

Only an idgit would not adjust to the world around them.

EJDolbow on April 29, 2008 at 12:17 PM

Exactly. This is why charges of flip-flopping are usually silly (as long as you don’t go back and forth several times depending on whom you’re talking to). We like getting politicians with gotchas, but the ability and courage to change your opinion over time is a good quality, not something to be ridiculed.

tneloms on April 29, 2008 at 12:26 PM

This doesn’t make any sense as a flip flop. Most politicians flip on an issue in order to pander, but no one can sensibly argue that McCain is pandering by stating he wants troops in Iraq for years. It’s an unpopular opinion.

Obviously the situation in Iraq has changed. It makes sense that a politician more interested in American security than his own public image would change his opinion.

And now I’ve just defended McCain as a politician more interested in America than himself. Having time to soften to McCain will probably work to get me to the polls it seems.

Esthier on April 29, 2008 at 12:29 PM

The Huffington/MSNBC level of discussion of the commitment and the overall strategy – and not just in its searching out of contradictions between speculative comments of several years ago and other more recent ones – is juvenile. Even if there has been a significant evolution in McCain’s thinking on the shape and size of a long-term commitment, something these selective quotes don’t quite demonstrate, so what? The issue should be arriving at the proper implementation of a long-term strategy, with as much flexibility as possible for taking changing conditions and new information into account.

It made sense strategically to “establish a significant combat presence” in continental Europe in 1944 by way of invasion. Making the effort in 1942 – something which many US strategists happened to advocate very strongly – probably would have been calamitous. By mid-1945, there wasn’t anyone to fight. Similarly, allied policy for post-war Germany was, at base, to turn it permanently into a non-industrial state. Within a few years, the thinking matured.

Comparing this to the Romney kerfuffle is also absurd. It’s not worth reviving that argument, but, in short, it had to do with political conduct, not strategic thinking.

CK MacLeod on April 29, 2008 at 12:35 PM

An interesting perspective on how to use this to his advantage, but I thought he already returned to the position that long-term presence after Iraq is stable isn’t viable. Or did I just stumble across one of the much older clips by accident?

Typhonsentra on April 29, 2008 at 12:41 PM

There is still a difference between McCain reevaluating the situation as it evolves and the other two pledging to just pull out regardless. Call it what you like but he did push for the surge and saw first hand the success. So I have no problem with him stating that a scaled back presence could be feasible.
As it has been said, there is a huge difference in this adjustment over time and changed circumstances compared to changing a position depending on the audience. It certainly isn’t waiving the surrender flag that BHO wants to do. Hitlary

libhater on April 29, 2008 at 12:42 PM

The significance of the clip, per Stein, is that it proves McCain’s alternately (a) a flip-flopper, (b) a newly minted neoconservative stooge, or (c) a hypocrite for criticizing opponents of occupation. As regards (a) and (b), if Maverick’s changing his position for opportunistic reasons then he desperately needs to consult some polls: He’s swimming very much against the tide of electoral opinion with his war support (as the left never fails to remind us), which means either that he sincerely believes in what he’s saying or that Norman Podhoretz’s opinion is somehow more important to him than the presidency.

Your defense of (a) and (b) works in a way, but it doesn’t really address the primary at all. My biggest problem with McCain is that he reversed–or at least significantly downplayed–many of his trademark “Maverick” issues while he was running in the Republican primary. The Bush tax cuts, torture, immigration, etc… a lot of these seemed to take a back seat to McCain’s support for the war (even while he criticized its handling in many respects). I used to think that McCain’s steadfast support for the war was the one trademark McCain position that made it through the primary process completely unscathed–it seemed like at least the fundamentals made it through entirely unchanged. This earlier quote is not conclusive evidence that this isn’t still the case (as you rightly point out, the situation in Iraq changes frequently and new information always calls for re-assessments of one’s positions), but it definitely gives me pause. Could he have tweaked his Iraq stance a bit to make it even more hawkish and thus somewhat more appealing during the Republican primary? Considering that he’s openly admitted that his 2000 stance on the Confederate flag in South Carolina was based on “ambition” rather than principle, I think the answer is a definite “Maybe.”

Yoosaion on April 29, 2008 at 12:47 PM

austinnelly on April 29, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Try reading the story before you spew your vitriol. McCain allegedly flipflopped from the position you are AGAINST to the position you are FOR. So Mr. Kamikaze Republican, try understanding the issue before you lock into automatic anti-McCain mode. Your candidate (whichever it was) lost. In the immortal words of Antonin Scalia “Get over it.”

HawaiiLwyr on April 29, 2008 at 12:48 PM

MS-NBC doesn’t mind promoting this either, as the clip below shows. Note that the announcer misrepresents McCain’s current position as “100 years of war”:

It never ceases to amaze me the crazy logic displayed by the left – this is clear proof that they are twisting his current position on Iraq (by claiming he wants 100 years of war, as Obama put it), because they are acknowledging the fact that this is about a Germany/Guantanamo type presence.

Rick on April 29, 2008 at 1:28 PM

Granted, I believe that McCain is right now and was wrong in 2005, but clearly his position has changed.

Different strokes for different folks I suppose as I believe that McCain was right in 2005 and is wrong now, however I do agree that very clearly his position has changed, but then so did Bush’s. Bush the Younger that is, I don’t think that Bush the Elder changed his position.

Maybe I’m missing something here. I mean, we’re going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That’s what it’s meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops. But I’m going to be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.
- George W. Bush (his past and far superior position)

MB4 on April 29, 2008 at 1:36 PM

A lot happens in three years of war, it’s not like he is changing his mind every 6 months. And it is not a “core” belief change, but a strategy change. There is a big difference in changing a military strategy, and changing core values like taxes.
He may have had valid judgments in 2005, but new ideas emerge. I wouldn’t hold it against Hillary if she suddenly decided that the government should not be involved in health care, I would say she learned her lesson, and has seen the light. She was wrong then, she would be right now.
Same with McCain, wrong then, right now…and we are voting for him now.

right2bright on April 29, 2008 at 1:44 PM

This is kind of irrelevent isn’t it? Whether American troops are in Iraq for 10 years or 100, McCain certainly won’t be president for more than 8. He seems committed, both now and in 2005, to winning the war first (“getting the casualty rate down”), then deciding what to do with the troops. Sounds reasonable to me.

JackOfClubs on April 29, 2008 at 3:10 PM

The 100 years war canard seems, to me, a practice in idiocy. Regardless what McCain wants to happen for 100 years, he’ll only be president for max 8, and won’t even be alive much longer than that. So even if he did want to stay in Iraq for 100 years, he would have no way of doing it.

Thus completely making the DNC’s ads look moronic, or at least trying to insinuate that the US public is too dumb to figure this out.

Seixon on April 29, 2008 at 3:24 PM

It’s obviously up to the what the Iraqi govt. wants

Lets not forget we are in Iraq now at the request of the Iraqi govt.

We will stay or keep a presence on good terms with the govt of Iraq to help them.

Chakra Hammer on April 29, 2008 at 4:08 PM

Ed and Allah: You may want to update this.

Stein has added an update (a never mind) at his post.

LATE UPDATE: The McCain campaign and Marc Ambinder note that earlier in the Matthews’ interview, the Senator argued that:

Sure we`re going to come home. But the fact is that the key to it is not when the troops come home. It is when we stop reading — today, Shuster just reported four brave young Marines were killed. It is the casualties that creates the discontent amongst Americans. We`ve been in Bosnia for, what, 10, 12, years, Kosovo for 10 years, South Korea for 50 years. Americans aren`t upset about that. But we have got to get the casualty rate down. And that`s the transfer of well-trained and well-equipped Iraqis to handle the security situation.

Ambinder argues that, “the full context of the interview he gave in 2005 suggests that he modeled a long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq on South Korea, albeit with a big difference: a major corps would not necessarily have to embed itself in the country.”

juliesa on April 29, 2008 at 4:33 PM

Of course, you guys are already way ahead of Stein in offering the context of the quotes, but I think it’s surprising that Stein backtracked a little. They hardly ever do that at HuffPo.

juliesa on April 29, 2008 at 4:39 PM

Tell me again that John McCain won’t change his mind on Iraq, he’ll stay resolute. I have some popcorn here and am enjoying the show. McCain hasn’t been resolutely conservative on a single issue ever.

Snake307 on April 29, 2008 at 5:57 PM

Sorry, that’s not a flip-flop period. Watch the clip very carefully. He said both in 2005 and 2008 that we would still have some presence in Iraq even after the war is over. In the clip MSNBC showed, you can see McCain clarifying his comments about having no long time presence in Iraq. The clip ends with McCain saying something about leaving military offices in Iraq, but MSNBC choose to leave the rest of the sentence on the cutting room floor. Predictable.

Frank T.J Mackey on April 29, 2008 at 6:59 PM