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War on war

Politics | Candidates spar over Iraq as the once-dominant campaign issue takes a backseat to domestic troubles

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

On a chilly April 11, 2007, Sen. John McCain delivered a speech at Virginia Military Institute that became emblematic not only of his stand on the war in Iraq but his often out-of-step, ponderous style.

Results from a just-begun surge in Iraq were not yet in, and Democrats and Republicans were talking about withdrawal timetables, but McCain was dogged. After all, he'd been calling for upping troop levels in Iraq since 2004. "Will this nation's elected leaders make the politically hard but strategically vital decision to give General Petraeus our full support and do what is necessary to succeed in Iraq?" he asked the cadets. "Or will we decide to take advantage of the public's frustration, accept defeat, and hope that whatever the cost to our security the politics of defeat will work out better for us than our opponents?" The next sentence was to become a signature line of his campaign: "For my part I would rather lose a campaign than a war."

At the time, it was a statement with resonance and poignancy because McCain's campaign was losing. He had slipped in polls to third place, behind Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. His popular support registered just 12 percent among Republicans.

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Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was on his way up. Heading into the South Carolina primary, the polls on April 11 had him leading Sen. Hillary Clinton 34 percent to 20 percent among the state's Democrats. And at a MoveOn.org virtual town hall event that week dedicated to Iraq policy and attended by about 145,000 liberal activists, Obama won over 42,000 votes-or 29 percent-among seven of the eight Democratic candidates.

Pressing his case, Obama issued a statement in response to McCain's VMI speech: "Progress in Iraq cannot be measured by the same ideological fantasies that got us into this war, it must be measured by the reality of the facts on the ground, and today those sobering facts tell us to change our strategy and bring a responsible end to this war."

A consistent war opponent, the Illinois senator reacted to the Bush/Petraeus surge plan by introducing legislation to reverse it and redeploy U.S. troops to Afghanistan and elsewhere. Eight months later he called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2009, starting immediately. He also called for a UN-led Iraqi constitutional convention to solve problems of "federalism, oil revenue sharing, and 'de-Ba'athification.'"

Events sometimes have a way of overtaking history, particularly in a drawn-out campaign. When Obama called for complete withdrawal, U.S. military deaths in Iraq were already falling-from a high of 126 in May 2007 to a low of 23 in December. The Iraqi parliament by early 2008 had passed laws on federalism and de-Baathification, and was debating oil revenue sharing. And John McCain pushed his way to the top of the Republican field largely on the strength of supporting an Iraq War policy that suddenly appeared to be winning. But until now neither candidate has factored into stump speeches the effect that the U.S. financial crisis will have on continued war funding, which has topped $450 billion (or $1,500 for every man, woman, and child in the United States).

Travel to Iraq as presidential candidates also had a sobering effect on Obama and McCain. Obama now calls for full troop withdrawal by 2010 and stirred some controversy when he asked Iraqi officials in Baghdad to delay status of forces negotiations with the Bush administration until after a new administration took office. McCain has begun to talk of a UN role in upcoming Iraqi elections.

As divided as the candidates are, so are Iraqis over the candidates. Iraqi leaders show more concern about Obama: President Jalal Talabani called Obama "a man of the left," and prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said he's concerned about Obama's "political debt to the anti-war lobby." Other prominent leaders ranging from Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani openly say they favor McCain. But on the streets Iraqis are ambivalent. Ali Omar, a 40-year-old painter, summed it up for many when he told his local paper, "I think that American foreign policy will remain the same no matter who becomes president." Many have been listening so long to debates over U.S. troop strength and withdrawal timetables, they say they no longer pay attention.

As it is for Iraqis, so for both tickets the Iraq War is personal. Three of four candidates have sons who have served there-Jimmy McCain completed a tour of duty earlier this year, while Track Palin and Beau Biden have just begun to serve.

World hot spots

Not surprisingly, McCain and Obama disagree most sharply over war and national security policy. On other foreign issues their views are mixed. Both, for instance, signed a May statement condemning the Sudanese government as "chiefly responsible" for atrocities in Darfur and supporting U.S. sanctions-an issue championed by the man to run from, President George Bush.


Obama: Opposes the war and called for withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces by the end of 2009-now extended to 2010. He has also voted against war funding bills and opposes the establishment of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

McCain: Said in 2004 he had "no confidence" in defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy and called for a significant increase of U.S. troops in Iraq.


Obama: Redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, sending at least two additional combat brigades and spending an additional billion dollars a year on nonmilitary assistance.

McCain: Troop surge in Iraq should be copied in Afghanistan; would send an additional three combat brigades (with NATO support) and appoint an Afghanistan czar based in the White House.

Military tribunals/Guantanamo Bay

Obama: Guantanamo should be closed and habeas corpus restored to detainees.

Praised a Supreme Court decision allowing Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention in court.

McCain: Guantanamo should be shut down and its prisoners moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. (which both Kansas GOP senators oppose).

Criticized Supreme Court ruling allowing Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention in court.

Israeli/Palestinian negotiations

Obama: After the church Obama then belonged to reprinted a treatise by Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook in 2007, and Obama received an endorsement from Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef, Obama told The Atlantic: "It's conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, 'This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he's not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush. . . . That's a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they're not confused about my unyielding support for Israel's security."

Supports continued U.S. military aid to Israel.

McCain: There can be no peace process "until the Palestinians recognize Israel, forswear forever the use of violence, recognize their previous agreements, and reform their internal institutions."

Supports continued U.S. military aid to Israel.


Obama: Willing to enter direct bilateral diplomacy with Iran to reduce its nuclear capability.

McCain: Willing to use military force against Iran if it attains a nuclear weapon and poses a "real threat" to Israel.


Obama: Called for normalizing relations and easing the embargo against Cuba. Twice voted to cut off Radio and TV Marti funding.

McCain: Has voted in favor of sanctions against Cuba and said he would increase funding to Radio and TV Marti.


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