Over the past few days, we’ve seen something that has become increasingly rare in American politics:  a Republican moving toward the Democrat in a campaign.  It’s quite refreshing.

Senator McCain has been quite the proponent of the “surge” in Iraq, an increase of 21,500 troops in Iraq announced by President Bush on January 10, 2007.  With the McCain doctrine implemented, the Senator from Arizona has repeatedly been against any “timetable” in bringing troops home.

The senator has held this stance for a long time.  One example is from February 2007 when he was campaigning in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

“Obviously, I have to talk to you about the war in Iraq,” he says somberly as the crowd quiets. “All of us — all of us — are frustrated. All of us are angry because of the mishandling of the war. All of us are saddened by the loss of our most precious asset, and that’s American blood.”

Even so, the costs of retreat would be higher, fueling chaos in Iraq and drawing terrorists to U.S. shores, he says. “I want us to have patience. I want us to succeed.”

Another happened more recently, a little over a week ago, when he criticized Sen. Obama’s plan to withdraw troops in sixteen months, claiming that it posed a threat to the progress made in Iraq.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Thursday ridiculed Democrat Barack Obama’s vow to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months as a political tactic aimed at getting votes.

McCain, an Arizona senator, attacked Obama as the Democrat prepares to go on a foreign trip to the Middle East and Europe that the McCain camp called a rolling overseas campaign event.

Obama in a speech this week stuck by his pledge to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 16 months, a policy McCain said would sacrifice the security gains that have recently brought a measure of stability to parts of the country.

“This success that we have achieved is still fragile and could be reversed,” McCain said on his campaign bus. “And if we do what Sen. Obama wants to do, then all of that could be reversed,” and leave behind chaos and Iranian influence, he said.

But Senator McCain was dealt a blow by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister.  Sen. McCain had been speaking for Maliki for a while, explaining that Iraq wanted the United States to continue its presence based on conditions on the ground.  Watch as Sen. McCain squirms in answering Meredith Vieira’s question:

But this presumptuous answer was crushed by the weight of Mr. Maliki’s statement in an interview with Der Spiegel, a German magazine, on July 19th:

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

McCain, with his legs knocked out from under him, was silent for a day or so.  His campaign then put out a statement that sought to portray Maliki’s statement as a result of Baghdad politics, arguing that it was politically advantageous for Maliki to make such a statement.

“His domestic politics require him to be for us getting out,” said a senior McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The military says ‘conditions based’ and Maliki said ‘conditions based’ yesterday in the joint statement with Bush. Regardless, voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders.”

Of course, Maliki received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq following the publication of the statements, and only after that phone call did Maliki backpedal a bit and claim that his remarks were mistranslated.  However, the New York Times performed an independent translation:

“Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate,” Mr. Dabbagh said Sunday by telephone. “I have the recording of the voice of Mr. Maliki. We even listened to the translation.”

But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki’s office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki’s interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama’s position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.

The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

So let’s start reviewing the major flip flop.  McCain, on April 22, 2004 at the Council of Foreign Relations, when asked if the United States should leave if asked by the Iraqi government, responded with the following:

PETERSON: We’re now ready for questions. Please wait for the microphone, identify yourself, keep your questions to the point, if you would, and try to remember we have only one speaker here, speaker McCain. Our distinguished new head of the Washington office asked me to kick off one or two, senator, and let me try.

Let me give you a hypothetical, senator. What would or should we do if, in the post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there? I understand it’s a hypothetical, but it’s at least possible.

McCAIN: Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it’s obvious that we would have to leave because — if it was an elected government of Iraq — and we’ve been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government, then I think we would have other challenges, but I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.

So before the chaos of Election 2008, McCain held that position.  Now that we’re in the middle of the campaign he’s held the position of no timetables, claiming that the Iraqi government agreed.  When Maliki came out with his statement that he agreed with a solution more in line with Senator Obama’s, McCain sought to couch this statement as one in line with his own views.

After a few days, though, McCain apparently had been thinking, because he radically changed his position yet again.  Sixteen months “is a pretty good timetable,” he said.  Yes — this is the same position advocated by Obama, and later, Maliki.

I’m kind of dizzy trying to keep track of this.  But it’s pretty clear that the McCain campaign is sure riding some kind of merry-go-round when it comes to this issue.  They can portray Obama’s unclarity on the surge as flip-flopping all they want, but it seems to me, given all of this information, McCain is the one with an ungrounded position.

And yes — a Republican is moving left for once.  Enjoy it!

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