In the latest fight between Barack Obama and John McCain over the war in Iraq, the Obama campaign Friday blasted the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for saying that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq had returned to levels prior to the "surge" of deployments in early 2007.
Campaigning at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin Thursday, McCain said of Iraq, "I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels."
In fact, there are currently about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, tens of thousands more than before President Bush's troop increase last year — a policy supported by McCain. Before the surge of troops, there were about 130,000-135,000 troops in Iraq.
Obama Camp Blasts McCain
The Obama campaign quickly pointed out McCain's error, dispatching Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle on a conference call with reporters to paint McCain's statement as a fundamental misunderstanding of military matters and the region.
"If you don't know the numbers of troops it's very difficult to make a judgment whether or not they're overextended and it is also very difficult to have an understanding as citizens about what levels of troops he's going to keep there," Kerry said, "because if he thinks 150,000 is pre-surge and that's where he's going to stay, that is a deeply overextended military, and it raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge."
Doyle added, "That's just not true and everybody knows that's not true. And I assume Sen. McCain just doesn't know the facts here."
McCain Stands By Troop Estimate
During a news availability with reporters Friday in Milwaukee, McCain defended his earlier comment about troop levels in Iraq and did not admit that he had misspoken in his original statements.
"We have drawn down from the surge and we will complete that drawdown to the end, at the end of July. That's just a factual statement," McCain told reporters. "We have drawn three of the five brigades. We have drawn down the Marines. The rest of them will be home the end of July. That's just fact, those are the facts as I stated them."
Before the Bush administration increased the number of US troops to Iraq in an attempt to quell escalating violence, there were 15 combat brigades in Iraq. The surge added five more brigades. Today there are 17 brigades in Iraq but there are plans for some troops to depart Iraq in June and another brigade to come home in July, returning the level to 15.
McCain said his judgment about the surge, moreso than Obama's, has proven correct, and used the opening to once again hit Obama for visiting the region once compared to McCain's eight visits to Iraq since the war began.
Obama is expected to hit McCain in remarks Friday night at a campaign event in Great Falls, Montana.
"You're entitled to your own view, but not your own facts," Obama is expected to say, according to excepts of his planned speech sent to reporters. "Today, Senator McCain refused to correct his mistake. Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake. His campaign said it amounts to 'nitpicking.'
"Well I don't think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking. Tell that to the young men and women who are serving bravely and brilliantly under our flag. Tell that to the families who have seen their loved ones fight tour after tour after tour of duty in a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged," read Obama's prepared remarks.
The Democratic candidate will also take a shot at McCain's invitation to Obama to go with him on a joint trip to Iraq - calling it a "political stunt."
"He's been proposing a joint trip to Iraq that's nothing more than a political stunt," Obama is expected to say.
McCain, Obama Spar Over War
The presumptive Republican nominee was an early supporter of the war in Iraq while Obama has long opposed it. Early on in the war against Iraq, McCain called on the Bush administration to increase the level of U.S. troops in the region.
"My judgment has been very clear on this issue," McCain said. "When every, most political pundits in all due respect, said that my career was finished because I supported the surge. That anyone who supported an increase of young Americans, that their candidacy was doomed.
"I put my candidacy on the line and I was more than happy to do that. Sen. Obama, for ideological reasons, because he certainly was not informed about the facts on the ground because he's only been there once, chose an entirely different course. So, clearly I was right about the surge, I was correct in saying that we could still win, and I'm proud of my record there."
The McCain campaign dispatched their own surrogates to push back on this issue, suggesting that if McCain did misspeak it does not amount to much.
"Take the worst possibility here which is that Sen. McCain misspoke and that because of the specific words used what he said was not entirely accurate," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz, a McCain backer. "So what? What does amount to? That's the worst possible scenario."
Randy Scheuneman, McCain's senior policy adviser, said that the mistake was only in word tense — that McCain should have said "we will" instead of "we have" drawn down to pre-surge levels.
"To get into a debate about a verb tense rather than the real fundamental national security issues at stake is very much a distraction, "Scheuneman said, "the kind of distraction that Senator Obama is fond of pointing out shouldn't take place in a presidential campaign."
The dust-up over troop levels follows a recent pattern by the campaigns of trading barbs over foreign policy. Obama returns to the primary state of Montana today after hitting general election states earlier this week in an attempt to focus on the fall campaign rather than on his Democratic nomination battle with Hillary Clinton.
Speaking to reporters today, Obama's backers suggested the Illinois senator will make the Iraq war a defining issue in his fight for the White House with McCain, and will attempt to tie McCain as much as possible to the war policies of the Bush administration.
"I look forward as a Democrat to the debate over who's really making America stronger and who understands the region better," Kerry said. "The fact is that if you don't know the number of troops, if you don't know who's training whom, if you don't know what's safe it's pretty hard to make a strong case that you ought to continue another term of the Bush presidency."