March 26, 2008— -- GOP presidential hopeful John McCain on Wednesday cast America's commitment to Iraq as a "moral responsibility" to avert a genocidal civil war that could ensue if U.S. troops are withdrawn too soon.
In a major address in California on foreign policy, the presumptive Republican nominee said, "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal."
Speaking to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain, who has supported the war from the beginning, pointed to what he said were signs of progress: a decrease in violence and civilian and military deaths, Iraqis returning to work, markets open, and oil revenues increasing.
He also said there have signs of political reconciliation at the local level, but he acknowledges, "political progress at the national level has been far too slow. … but there is progress."
McCain spent two days in Iraq on a congressional visit one-and-a-half weeks ago.
He has previously said that to be elected president, he will need to convince American voters that whatever they think of the wisdom of having gone to war, the U.S. has a vital interest in keeping troops there long enough to quash the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
In his speech, he said he believes it is still possible for Iraq to become a stable democracy and it is in the geo-political interests of the United States to see that Iraq and Afghanistan attain that goal.
"Those who claim we should withdraw from Iraq in order to fight Al Qaeda more effectively elsewhere are making a dangerous mistake," he warned.
"Whether they were there before is immaterial. Al Qaeda is in Iraq now. If we withdraw prematurely, al Qaeda will survive [and] proclaim victory … Civil war in Iraq could easily descend into genocide, and destabilize the entire region as neighboring powers come to the aid of their favored factions. I believe a reckless and premature withdrawal would be a terrible defeat for our security interests and our values."
In his sole attack directed explicitly at Democratic presidential contenders Senators Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., McCain said, "[The] consequences of our defeat would threat us for years and those who argue for [withdrawal], as both Democratic candidates do, are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date."
McCain reiterated a prominent campaign theme of his: that radical Islam and terrorism are the transcendent threat of our time.
"Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House, for he or she does not take seriously enough the first and most basic duty a president has — to protect the lives of the American people," he said, in an oblique reference to the two Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination.
Responding, Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton said in a written statement, "John McCain is determined to carry out four more years of George Bush's failed policies, including an open-ended war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars while making us less safe. Barack Obama will change our foreign policy and renew America's leadership by responsibly ending the war in Iraq, finishing the fight in Afghanistan, and focusing on the 21st century challenges that conventional Washington has ignored for too long -- al Qaeda's core leadership and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease."
McCain went on to propose greater strategic co-operation with America's European allies and other democracies.
In a seeming rebuke to the Bush Administration, he said, "Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed. We need to listen tot he views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic or diplomatic, we will try to persuade out friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them."
McCain called on the United States and international community to work to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
And the Republican contender demanded greater action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, proposed ousting Russia from the G-8 group of economic partners because it is insufficiently democratic, and he said as president he would establish the goal of eradicating malaria in Africa.
He also made an apparent effort to allay concerns that he is insensitive to the horrors of war, noting that his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals, served in the Pacific in World War II.
His grandfather returned exhausted from war and died the next day of a heart attack. He said he lost friends in the Vietnam War, during which he himself was held prisoner by North Vietnamese for more than five years.
"I detest war," McCain said. "When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalize the merciless reality of war."
McCain made no mention of the number of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq, which surpassed 4,000 earlier this week.