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The Battle Over Benchmarks By: Joseph D'Hippolito
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 04, 2008


The man who passionately criticizes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for advocating timetables for troop withdrawal and milestones for progress in Iraq publicly considered the same thing a year ago.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, fighting with Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, told Tucson's Arizona Daily Star on January 25, 2007, that "he might propose that the Iraqi government meet certain benchmarks for the United States to continue its engagement," wrote Margaret Talev.

The article continued:

McCain said Thursday that he hadn't yet decided on precise benchmarks. "They'd have to be specific, and they (Iraqi government officials) would have to meet them," he said.

Asked what penalty would be imposed if Iraq failed to meet his benchmarks, he said: "I think everybody knows the consequences. Haven't met the benchmarks? Obviously, then, we're not able to complete the mission. Then you have to examine your options."

Compare McCain's comments to those Romney made in April to ABC, comments that McCain currently vilifies:

Well, there's no question that the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government.

Notice any significant differences?

Actually, there are two. First, Romney admitted the possibility that terrorists could exploit the situation; McCain did not in the Daily Star.

Second, and more important, McCain used the possible withdrawal of American troops as an implied threat if the Iraqi government failed to meet hypothetical benchmarks. Romney did not state that withdrawal would be a possible consequence.

Besides, if the United States and Iraq agreed to specific benchmarks, would they not have to be secret by necessity?

Yet McCain not only accuses Romney of supporting "withdrawal timetables" as "the code words for 'bailout.'" He also counts Romney among those "hedging their bets on Iraq, protecting themselves politically by being deliberately vague on their support for Gen. Petraeus' new strategy."

But a year ago, McCain himself appeared to be hedging.

"Fellow senators and independent political scientists," Talev wrote, "said McCain's thinking reflected growing concerns within the Republican Party about the course of the war, and also might mark a turning point for the likely 2008 presidential contender, whose previous unconditional backing of the war may have hurt his prospects (emphasis added)."

Among those political scientists was Prof. Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center.

"I think it certainly could be politically significant." Smith told the Daily Star. "This seems to me like he's trimming his sails a little on the issue. He has a lot of company with this. He's not out on a limb. I think there is probably a deep sense of frustration among Republicans."

Talev wrote that McCain was "in no way" relinquishing his support for the United States' military presence in Iraq, especially for the increase of 21,500 troops known as the surge. Nevertheless, McCain's comments gave the war's opponents hope.

"We Catholics call that an epiphany," Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden told the Daily Star. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sponsored the Democrats' resolution opposing the surge.

"I called for that…several weeks ago," said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, contending for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I'm glad that John McCain agrees with me. He's somebody who has enormous influence with the White House. He's been one of the key champions of this escalation of troops."

A year later, McCain's criticism of Romney generated more intense responses.

The Associated Press reported that the quotes McCain's campaign representatives circulated "didn't show Romney making that exact comment – nor did aides back up McCain's earlier comment that suggested that Romney 'wanted to set a date for withdrawal.'"

Time Magazine's Michael Scherer called McCain's criticism, "a misleading low blow."

The Atlantic Monthly's Matt Yglesias was more emphatic:

"One interesting thing about politics is that you might think that when a politician develops a reputation for honesty, the way Saint John of Arizona has, that from that day forward he needs to be super-scrupulous about telling the truth. Otherwise, voters who might dismiss a small fib from a 'regular' politician will suddenly be outraged. In truth, the reverse is the case.

"Thus, Mac was not only Back last night (during the Republicans' debate January 30), but appears to have made his patently false accusation that Mitt Romney favored a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq the centerpiece of his argument at last night's debate. Shocking stuff. McCain's made this claim before, everyone who's looked at it concluded that it wasn't true, and so McCain . . . just did it again in a higher-profile forum."

The most vituperative response came from The American Spectator's Quin Hillyer in writing to fellow reporter Philip Klein on the magazine's blog February 1:

Suddenly, McCain is angry, just three days before Florida, about Romney's position way back last April -- but he has yet to criticize his pathetic little buddy Mike Huckabee's far more open skepticism about the surge for several weeks AFTER Bush announced it, following by another couple of weeks of dodging and weaving.

Meanwhile, McCain touts the support of Sen. Brownback, who pulled the Fonda-like move of announcing outright opposition to the surge, WHILE IN IRAQ, on the very day Bush announced it (even before Bush had had a chance to make his case in his national speech on the issue) -- the same day on which Romney was offering strong support for the surge. You will, of course, remember my vociferous criticism of Brownback at the time (Emphases in original.)

So how is McCain content with Huck, and embracing Brownback, and ignoring his own remarks a year ago about benchmarks, etc., yet still able, with a straight face, to continue making the attack on Romney and even ratcheting up the attack to compare Romney to Hillary on the issue and to say that Romney owes an "apology" to all our soldiers and Marines because of that one, random, out-of-context snippet from a longer answer Romney gave?

The reality is that there was little difference between McCain's position and Romney's, because either would be a capable commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces during a time of war. Many issues may separate these two Republican hopefuls; this is not one of them.


Joseph D’Hippolito is a columnist for Frontpagemag.com, whose main focuses are religion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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