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Sen. John McCain's television ad in which he touts his history of criticizing the Bush administration on Iraq has drawn the fire of the Democratic National Committee. In a news release on Oct. 3, 2007, the DNC declared, "McCain Trying to Have it Both Ways on Iraq."
Here's the DNC's full charge: "After years of supporting President Bush's failed strategy in Iraq, and after leading the charge for the Bush-McCain escalation of that war, John McCain is trying to have it both ways by trying to cast himself as a longtime critic of the administration while at the same time refusing to change course on the war."
Well, yes, that's true. McCain is indeed trying to cast himself as a longtime critic of the administration while staying the course in Iraq. More to the point, though, it's accurate. McCain actually has been a longtime critic of the administration on Iraq, even as he has advocated a sustained and larger military presence there.
But saying that's "having it both ways" is just the kind of oversimplifying of facts the Democrats love to accuse the White House of doing. A bit like saying that opposing U.S. involvement Iraq is the same as opposing the war on terrorism.
McCain's ad is part of an attempt to distinguish himself from the president on Iraq. The Democrats point out that McCain has been wedded to the president's overall war policy, and like President Bush, McCain has displayed a tendency to offer rosy predictions about the outcome in Iraq, even as conditions didn't seem to be improving much.
All of that is true, and there's no shortage of evidence.
"I think the situation on the ground is going to improve," McCain told the Hill newspaper on Dec. 8, 2005. "I do think that progress is being made in a lot of Iraq. Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course. If I thought we weren't making progress, I'd be despondent."
As the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain has been a tireless supporter of the war, and he has robustly defended the president's ability to wage the war as he saw fit. Arguing Sept. 19, 2007, against an amendment that would have required troops to spend as much time at home as they spent in Iraq before being sent back to Iraq, McCain said this on the Senate floor:
"Clearly the message I am getting from the troops in the field is not that the war is lost. ... We are succeeding and we are winning. And with the enactment of this amendment, we will choose to lose. This is setting a formula for surrender, not for victory.
"I am hearing from the troops in the field three words, three words: Let us win. They have sacrificed a great deal. ... Now give them a chance to win. That is what they want. They do not want that sacrifice to be in vain."
McCain was calling for more troops and resources as far back as 2003, just months after the invasion. He criticized former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for two years before Rumsfeld resigned. In speeches and interviews, he frequently warned that failure to change tactics would lead to a long and difficult fight.
In fact, it's common for McCain to express his concerns about the U.S. strategy in Iraq and his belief in the U.S. mission there in the same speech.
"We have made many, many mistakes since 2003 and these will not be easily reversed," McCain said during a Jan. 5, 2007, panel discussion at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "Even greater than the cost thus far, and in the future, however, are the catastrophic consequences that would ensue from our failure in Iraq."
McCain's positions on Iraq underscore the complexity of the war as a political issue, and of McCain's unique position as supporter and critic. It may prove difficult for voters to get the nuance. It also may offer a little insight into why the other top-tier presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, are treading a bit more lightly.
The DNC's critique of McCain has at its core a nugget of truth about how McCain supports the war while being critical of how it has been conducted. But we find the DNC's claim that this is "having it both ways" to be a Barely True presentation of the facts.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
Council on Foreign Relations, John McCain speech , Nov. 5, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations, John McCain speech , April 22, 2004
Meet the Press, interview with John McCain , Nov. 21, 2004
Fox News Sunday, interview with John McCain , Aug. 14, 2005.
The Hill newspaper, interview with John McCain, Dec. 8, 2005
Meet the Press, interview with John McCain , Nov. 12, 2006
American Enterprise Institute, panel discussion with John McCain , Jan. 5, 2007
U.S. Senate Floor debate , Sept. 19, 2007
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