The campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama are engaged in a fierce exchange today over a questionable claim McCain made in Wisconsin last night about progress in Iraq.
McCain said Thursday that the troop surge President Bush put in place last year was working. As evidence, McCain contended that there were fewer US troops in the country today than there were before the surge began.
"We have drawn down to pre-surge levels," he said.
But according to Pentagon figures, that's not true. Currently there are more than 150,000 troops in the country; before the surge, there were more than 130,000. Even after planned withdrawals over the next two months, there will still be 140,000 American troops there.
"John McCain is out of step with history and facts," Senator John F. Kerry, a leading Obama surrogate, told reporters on a conference call today.
Kerry also raised McCain's trip to a Baghdad market last year, during which McCain cited security gains in the city despite being protected by a heavy US troop presence and wearing body armor, and McCain's misstatements two months ago about how Iran, a largely Shiite country, was training Al Qaeda, the Sunni-led terrorist network.
Kerry said it was impossible for McCain to argue he has the best judgment on Iraq "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."
McCain's campaign asserts that the dispute amounts to little more than "semantics," and that, even if the troop levels aren't currently at pre-surge levels, the decisions have been made to get them there.
"The decisions are made, the actions are being taken to bring those troops home," Senator Jon Kyl told reporters on a conference call.
Randy Scheunemann, a senior adviser on foreign policy, said that Obama is merely trying to distract from his limited knowledge of and visits to the country. Obama, he said, was "wedded to a narrative of failure" and "refused to recognize progress."
Asked by reporters in Milwaukee today if he misspoke, McCain said, "Of course not," and maintained that the larger, more important question was whether or not the surge had been successful in reining in the chaos. "The question is, did they succeed or fail?" McCain said. "I know enough about the military and I know enough about history. This is about judgment and leadership and clearly Senator Obama was wrong."
Obama's campaign responded by distributing McCain's remarks to the press as proof of what Obama aides called the Arizona senator's "fundamental misunderstanding of the troop levels in Iraq."
UPDATE: Obama plans to tell a rally in Montana this evening that McCain was wrong about the troop levels and that "anyone running for Commander-in-Chief should know better."
"I don't think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking," he will say, according to prepared remarks issued by his campaign. "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 shouldíve never been authorized and never been waged. Itís time for a debate thatís based on the truth, and I canít think of anything more important than how many Americans are in harmís way."
"Itís time to cut through the tough talk so that we can be straight with the American people about a war thatís cost us thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars without making us safer," Obama says in the prepared remarks. "Itís time to end the political game-playing so that we can finally end this war. Thatís what Iíll do in this campaign. And thatís what Iíll do when Iím President of the United States.Ē
Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, issued a rebuttal to Obama's Montana speech: ďWe agree with Barack Obama about one thing -- with troops on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should have an honest, respectful debate about the best way forward. And if Barack Obama wants facts, we're happy to have a debate based in fact: the fact is Barack Obama has refused to have a one on one meeting with General Petraeus, and has avoided a fact-finding visit to Iraq for over 872 days.
"The fact is, Barack Obama has voted against bullets and body armor for our troops while theyíve been fighting extremists abroad. The fact is, Senator Obama has been critical, but failed to hold a single oversight hearing on our mission in Afghanistan despite his position in the Senate. The fact is, he fails to grasp that a reckless withdrawal, while it may elevate his political aspirations, it will lead to chaos, danger and increased Iranian influence in the region. The reality is Barack Obamaís lack of action amounts to weak leadership, and shows he is just not ready to be our commander in chief.Ē
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.