"Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing. But when 4,000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of our failure in Iraq, it is a necessary thing. In such a grave matter, we must put the nation's interests before our own ambitions."
That's a harsh critique of his two prospective opponents coupled with a rather audacious advertisement for himself: that they are political opportunists willing to deceive Americans and exploit popular sentiment for their own advancement — and he is not.
The McCain campaign has been especially irked by Obama's repeated recent attacks saying that McCain is willing — or even eager — to wage war in Iraq for 100 years, a distortion of what McCain actually said. McCain said a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq akin to that in South Korea could be acceptable if American casualties were eliminated.
The McCain campaign and Republican National Committee have relentlessly tried to rebut Obama on this point, but the Illinois Democrat keeps saying it, no doubt convinced it is an effective line of attack that puts McCain on the defensive.
McCain is acting pre-emptively in anticipation of another line of attack from Obama, should the Illinois senator face his senior colleague from Arizona in the general election, as many in McCain's campaign predict will happen. McCain is saying the debate this fall should not be about the decisions that were made to get the U.S. into the war, but rather about what to do going forward.
This plays to the McCain campaign's belief that voters will trust McCain as commander-n-chief over Clinton or Obama, and seeks to blunt the expected criticism of McCain for being an early and ardent supporter of the decision to go to war.
"The question for the next President is not about the past, but about the future and how to secure it," he said in his speech today. "Our most vital security interests are at stake in Iraq. The stability of the entire Middle East, that volatile and critically important region, is at stake. The United States' credibility as a moral and political leader is at stake. How to safeguard those interests is what we should be debating."
McCain will have to persuade voters too that what he is calling for is something different than just a continuation of the war policy of President George W. Bush.
The Democrats seemed to have settled on the skewering one-liner than a McCain Administration would amount to a third Bush term.
McCain has tried to separate himself from Bush's Iraq policy by asserting that he was a harsh critic of what he calls the failed "Rumsfeld strategy" that preceded the surge.
He has also begun adding to his remarks on Iraq that he envisions a withdrawal of some unspecified number of troops as Iraqi forces gain the ability to handle their country's security — a scenario undermined by the Iraqi troops' inability to put down the uprising by Shi'ite militias in Basra last month.
A Moral Imperative
McCain will likely continue to cast the war in Iraq as not just a struggle of geo-political import, but as a matter of morality, a rhetorical tack he first took in a speech in Los Angeles two weeks ago.