John McCain launched a blistering attack on Barack Obama’s foreign policy Friday, saying that his Democratic presidential rival’s “audacity of hopelessness” in opposing the troop buildup would have lost Iraq and left the United States weaker.
“Sen. Obama told the American people what he thought you wanted to hear,” said McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. “I told you the truth.” McCain supported the move to bolster U.S. ground forces in Iraq last year.
His speech to a Latino veterans group here covered familiar ground but was unusually critical of Obama -- who, to the frustration of the McCain campaign, has dominated headlines this week with his trip to the Middle East and Europe.
More than a third of McCain’s 26-minute address consisted of harsh language targeting the Illinois senator.
“Fortunately, Sen. Obama failed, not our military,” McCain said. Then, in a play on the title of Obama’s bestseller, “The Audacity of Hope,” he added: “We rejected the audacity of hopelessness, and we were right.”
Obama was traveling in France and Britain on Friday, but his campaign issued a statement accusing McCain of stepping out of bounds.
“The American people are looking for a serious debate about the way forward in Iraq and Afghanistan, and angry, false accusations will do nothing to accomplish that goal,” spokesman Bill Burton said.
“Barack Obama and John McCain may differ over our strategy in Iraq, but they are united in their support for our brave troops and their desire to protect this nation,” Burton said. “Sen. McCain’s constant suggestion otherwise is not worthy of the campaign he claimed he would run or the magnitude of the challenges this nation faces.”
McCain spoke in a Denver hotel banquet hall to supportive members of the GI Forum, who frequently interrupted his speech with cheers and gave him a standing ovation.
The Arizona senator contrasted his own support for the buildup -- an unpopular strategy, according to polls -- with what he described as Obama’s politically calculated opposition to it.
He pointed out that Obama had voted against funding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in May 2007, a move the Democrat’s campaign said was in response to President Bush’s veto of an Obama-backed troop funding bill with withdrawal timelines. The Illinois senator has voted to fund troops three times since that lone “no” vote.
“He didn’t just advocate defeat,” McCain said. “He tried to legislate it.”
“If Sen. Obama had prevailed, American forces would have had to retreat under fire. The Iraqi army would have collapsed. Civilian casualties would have increased dramatically,” the Arizona Republican said. “Civil war, genocide and wider conflict would have been very, very likely. Above all, America would have been humiliated and weakened.”
McCain tried to steal some of Obama’s thunder on troop withdrawal. The Democrat has pledged to pull troops out of Iraq within 16 months if he is sworn in as president. The Republican has attacked that pledge as reckless and argued that a pullout can only be dictated by conditions on the ground.
But on Friday, he forecast a similar reduction.
“I’m confident we will be able to reduce our forces in Iraq next year, and our forces will be out of regular combat operations and dramatically reduced in number during the term of the next president -- I think you know who I’m talking about,” he added with a chuckle.
“We have fought the worst battles, survived the toughest threats, and the hardest part of this war is behind us.”
After the convention, McCain jetted off to Aspen for an appointment with the Dalai Lama. The senator had requested the meeting, and the two men spoke briefly to reporters before McCain flew to Arizona.
McCain praised the Dalai Lama’s dedication to nonviolence. “His . . . lifelong approach of seeking common ground around cultural and eligious divides [is] an inspiration for all of mankind and to millions of Americans,” McCain said.
For his part, the Dalai Lama stressed that the gathering was not an endorsement -- an aide said he has spoken to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama as well. He described McCain as an “old friend” but said his main business is not politics.
“My commitment,” he said, “is promotion of compassion.”