A McCain flip-flop on Iraq?

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.


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.


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.