In his back-and-forth with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., over Iraq, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Thursday morning sought to portray the Democratic front-runner as representing the Iraq politics of the past by focusing on the decision to invade in 2003 rather than what to do now.
"That's history, that's the past," McCain told attendees at a town hall meeting at Rice University. "That's talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we're going to do now. And what we're going to do now is continue this strategy which is succeeding in Iraq and we are carrying out the goals of the surge, the Iraqi military are taking over more and more of the responsibilities."
It was an interesting claim from the man seeking to be the oldest American ever first elected president — about a candidate 25 years his junior — and is just the latest charge in what may be a preview of the general election.
al Qaeda in Iraq
McCain Wednesday criticized Obama for stating that as president, after withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, he might send troops back in "if al Qaeda is forming a base" there. Seeking to portray Obama as naïve and ill-informed on national security, McCain said, "I have some news — al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called: 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.'"
In Columbus, Ohio, that day, Obama said, "I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."
McCain continued to debate this argument today at Rice University.
"So let me get this right," McCain said. "Senator Obama wants to leave immediately from Iraq, but if al Qaeda is in Iraq then he would consider going back. Obviously that's, that's not logical. In fact, we are succeeding in Iraq something that both he and Senator Clinton refuse to acknowledge."
McCain went on to list ways he says the surge strategy in Iraq is working. "The Iraqi military are taking over more and more of the responsibilities. The casualties are down, and we will be able to withdraw and come home but we will come home with honor."
He said "if we do what Senator Clinton and Senator Obama want — which is declare a date for withdrawal — then al Qaeda will tell the world that they defeated the United States of America and we will be fighting again in that region and in the rest of the world and they will follow us home."
Pushing back on any idea he's fear-mongering, McCain said his charge that al Qaeda would follow Americans home is based on al Qaeda rhetoric. "That's not my idea, that's theirs, if you read what [Osama] bin Laden… [Ayman] Zawahiri and all the others are saying," he said. "There's a lot at stake here, my friends."
McCain went after both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, on the subject of trade, as both Democrats continued to rail against NAFTA as they compete for votes in Ohio, where union households represent 25 percent of Democratic primary voters.
"NAFTA has created jobs," McCain said, arguing that the trade deal has been good for the American, Canadian, and Mexican economies.
"Anyone who studies history understands that every time this country or other nations in the world have practiced protectionism, they've paid a very, very heavy price for it," McCain said, adding that "some would argue that one of the major contributors to World War II was the Smoot-Hawley tariffs acts."
McCain called himself an advocate of "free trade," which would be "one of the many differences between myself and whoever the nominee of the Democratic party is."