Divisions over Iraq extended to the presidential campaign during the Senate’s all-night debate, with Republican John McCain steadfastly backing President Bush’s war strategy as Democratic rivals demanded troop withdrawals.
“Our defeat there would be catastrophic, not just for Iraq, but for us,” the Arizona senator said Wednesday. “As long as we have a chance to succeed we must try to succeed.”
In a speech just after 4 a.m., Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York argued: “It is time for us to move our troops out of harm’s way in the middle of the Iraqi civil war.”
The two were among several White House hopefuls in the Senate who participated in a marathon debate before voting on a Democratic-led measure ordering a drawdown in forces. The 52-47 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate under Senate rules.
Presidential candidates voted mostly along party lines, with McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., opposing the measure, while Clinton and Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware supporting it. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican flirting with a bid, sided with the Democrats.
As the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, McCain took the lead for the GOP during the debate. It was a fitting role, given that, aside from Bush, he is widely viewed as the Republican whose political fortunes are perhaps most tied to Iraq. He was on the floor Tuesday until about 10:15 p.m., returned for several hours in the middle of the night, and was back at it by dawn.
McCain has long acknowledged the United States has made mistakes in the war, and he referred to wartime errors as he condemned the Democratic measure. “I cannot react to those mistakes by embracing a course of action that I know will be an even greater mistake, a mistake of colossal historical proportions,” he said.
Countering, Clinton argued that the U.S. military has accomplished its original missions: removing Saddam Hussein from power, helping Iraqis hold democratic elections and giving them the ability to start establishing a political framework. Thus, she said the United States must “start bringing our troops out of this multisided, sectarian civil war.”
“Our message to the president is clear: It’s time to start thinking of our troops and our broader position in Iraq and beyond, not next year, not next month, but today,” she added.
Her chief rival, Obama, was scheduled to deliver remarks between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. — around the start of the morning news shows — but a backlog caused him to cut short his speech when he took the floor several hours later than planned.
“All of us want to see our troops come home safely. All of us want the best possible result in Iraq,” Obama said. “Given we have no good options at this point, that we have bad options and worse options, I think it is very important for us … to recognize that none of us are interested in dictating military strategy to the president but rather to set a mission for the military.”
Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the vote “merely a first step.”
“We have to get us out of the middle of a civil war,” he said. “But then we have to be in a position … where we come up with a political solution.”