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The War Over the War

McCain and Romney face off over Iraq.

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2008 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Tampa, Florida

FOR TWO DAYS, John McCain and Mitt Romney have traded accusations on what was, until recently, the most important issue in the Republican presidential primary: Iraq. And while Romney attempted Sunday to diffuse the growing dispute, McCain escalated his criticism.

Talking to a handful of reporters on his campaign bus, McCain said that Romney had used "code words" to call for withdrawal from Iraq. "At the time [of Romney's remarks] it was whether we were going to stay or go. And that's what it was all about. 'Timetables' was the buzzword and everybody knows it . . . Timetables' was the codeword for 'bailout.' . . . It has to be viewed in the context of the time and what was going on at the time--that was everybody wanted out. Nobody but a few of us said we not only can't get out, we can't set timetables, we've got to increase troops. We've got to have the surge."

The entire episode began at the debate on Thursday, when McCain made a passing reference to Romney, without actually naming him. "There were others that called for a phased or secret withdrawal," he said.

In a speech the following day, McCain once again alluded to Romney without naming him, but got more specific talking to reporters afterwards. "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher."

Several media outlets have taken McCain to task for his claims that Romney called for a secret timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, but McCain stands by the charge.

Here, briefly, is the context. In April, ABC's Robin Roberts asked Romney: "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" He responded: "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."

Writers from the Associated Press and Time magazine, among others, have suggested Romney's quote does not constitute an endorsement of "secret timetables" for withdrawal. It is a debatable point. If Romney does not actually say, "I support secret timetables for withdrawal," he does seem to endorse such timetables in response to a question about withdrawal. That's important. It was a direct question: "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" If the answer was no, presumably Romney would have said so. He did not.

Romney further muddled things in his response to a follow-up. Roberts said: "So, private. You wouldn't do it publicly? Because the president has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?"

Romney responded: "Well, of course. Can you imagine a setting where during the Second World War we said to the Germans, gee, if we haven't reached the Rhine by this date, why, we'll go home, or if we haven't gotten this accomplished we'll pull up and leave? You don't publish that to your enemy, or they just simply lie in wait until that time. So, of course you have to work together to create timetables and milestones, but you don't do that with the opposition."

Did Romney say he would, like Bush, veto anything with a timetable? Or does the rest of his answer suggest that he's for the timetables as long as they're private? Again, it's debatable.

But to go as far as CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, who claimed that McCain is "lying" about what Romney said, is a stretch. At the time Romney made the comments, many observers, including several reporters, took him to mean exactly what McCain is imputing to him now. If the Romney campaign protested that interpretation, their objections did now show up in any of the follow-up reporting on his comments.

McCain has long believed that Romney hedged on the surge and the war in Iraq. At a debate in Durham, New Hampshire, on September 5, Romney answered a question about the surge by saying, "the surge is apparently working." McCain pounced a moment later. "No, not apparently. It's working." It was one of McCain's strongest debate performances and he points to it as a "seminal" moment in the remarkable turnaround of his campaign.