McCain, Obama debate focuses on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, US eco crisis

By Ronald Baygents, KUNA,

Washington : US presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama Friday night aired their differences on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia — and the US financial crisis — during the first of three debates scheduled before voters elect the next president on November 4.

Support TwoCircles

One of their sharpest exchanges during the event, which was held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, came during questions about lessons of the Iraq war.

McCain said the United States could not have a failed strategy in Iraq that could cause the war to be lost, and criticized Obama for not supporting the nearly two-year-old troop surge into Iraq, which McCain said had succeeded.

“We are winning in Iraq and will come home with victory and with honor,” McCain said, predicting that “a stable ally and fledgling democracy” will emerge in Iraq.

McCain blasted Obama for opposing the surge and for advocating a timetable for pulling US troops out of Iraq. He said the next US president will decide “when we leave and how we leave” Iraq.

“John, you like to pretend the war started in 2007,” Obama said. “It started in 2003.” On key assumptions involving the Iraq war, including that it was the central front in the war on terror, that the United States would be welcomed as liberators, and what would happen with Shia factions — Obama turned to McCain and said after each point, “You were wrong.” “The first question is whether we should have gone to war in the first place,” Obama said, noting his opposition to the US invasion in 2002, “when it was politically risky to do so,” months before President George W. Bush launched it.

The United States did not finish the job in Afghanistan by defeating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, did not capture or kill Osama bin Laden, but instead spent more than 60 billion dollars a month on a war in Iraq that will eventually cost one trillion dollars and already has cost the lives of more than 4,000 US troops, Obama said.
The United States must use its military wisely, Obama said.

When McCain said Obama had voted against funding US troops, Obama said he differed with McCain on portions of military legislation on Iraq that involved setting a timetable for a US pullout, but that he did support funding the troops.

On Afghanistan, Obama said he would send two additional combat brigades there after giving Iraq back to the Iraqis, reducing the US presence in Iraq significantly within 16 months.

The US must “capture or kill bin Laden and crush Al-Qaeda,” Obama said, noting that there are four times as many US troops in Iraq as in Afghanistan, which reflects “a strategic mistake.” Obama said Taliban “safe havens” in Pakistan must be cleared out by US troops if the Pakistan government cannot or will not do it.

McCain, 72, who repeatedly said the 47-year-old Obama was naive and lacking in experience, slammed Obama for saying he would unilaterally launch US strikes in Pakistan.

“You don’t say that,” McCain chided Obama. Instead, the United States must get the support of Pakistanis and help them go into the Pakistan-Afghan border areas where militants are hiding. McCain said he was confident that US General David Petraeus, who recently assumed command of the Afghan theater after being in charge in Iraq during the troop surge period, would succeed in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq.

On Iran, both senators said that country must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, and both said more sanctions on Iran would be necessary, with McCain citing the need for more cooperation from a proposed “League of Democracies” to deal with Iran — including Britain, France and Germany — while Obama said cooperation from Russia and China would be needed on the sanctions issue.

Obama advocated “tough, direct diplomacy” with Iran, while McCain belittled Obama for agreeing to meet Iranian President Ahmadenijad “without preconditions.” Doing that would “legitimize their illegal behavior,” McCain said. Obama retorted by noting that Ahmadinejad “may not be the most powerful person in Iran.” McCain said Iran was “an existential threat” to Israel, as well as other countries in the region and the world.

Obama said the single thing that has most strengthened Iran in recent years was the war in Iraq, and that the Bush administration policies toward Iran have not worked.
On Russia, Obama said the US approach must be re-evaluated in light of the Russian invasion of Georgia last month. Russia must get out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the US must support all fledgling democracies in that region, including helping them joint NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), he said.

However, there must not be a return to a Cold War posture with Russia, Obama said, because Russian cooperation is needed in such critical issues as preventing “loose nukes” from getting into the hands of Al-Qaeda. McCain criticized Obama for his initial reaction to the Russian invasion, in which Obama said both sides — Russia and Georgia — should show restraint. The Russian invasion was all about oil, McCain said, citing a Russian desire to control the oil pipeline to the Caspian Sea. The US must bolster its friends and allies in that region, McCain said, drawing attention in particular to Ukraine. The debate opened with remarks from both men about the proposed 700-billion-dollar Wall Street bailout package backed by the Bush administration, which is the subject of ongoing negotiations by the Congress this weekend. Obama was more specific on the issue, calling for a bill that provides greater oversight over Wall Street; protection for US taxpayers to get the money back one day; the elimination of “golden parachutes” for Wall Street executives whose firms were mismanaged; and assistance to US homeowners facing foreclosure due to the mortgage crisis. The Wall Street mess represents “the final verdict on eight years of failed Bush policies, supported by McCain,” Obama said. McCain, who described the situation as “the greatest fiscal crisis in our times,” said the bailout package must have “transparency, accountability and oversight.” He acknowledged that his fellow Republicans in the US House of Representatives, who have emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the bailout package, have “decided they will be part of the solution to this problem.” The legislation must make US financial institutions stable and create jobs, McCain said. Obama said Republicans had allowed Wall Street regulations to be “shredded, ” but that he was optimistic a bailout package would be approved. Asked if he would vote for the bailout legislation, McCain said, “I hope so. Sure,” then added that “people will be held accountable” for the market meltdown once he becomes president. McCain several times accused Obama of planning to raise taxes and increase spending, while saying he would slash spending and cut taxes. Obama said his economic plan would not raise taxes on anyone making less than 250,000 dollars a year — 95 percent of US taxpayers. Among the places Obama said he would make budget cuts was the Iraq war, which he said would bring about a big savings “when we bring that war to an end.”
Obama also called for a US energy policy to free the United States from Mideast oil within 10 years. When McCain hammered Obama repeatedly for seeking 932 million dollars in congressional earmarks for his home state of Illinois, Obama noted that McCain focuses on relatively small budgetary numbers in his criticism, while supporting some 300 billion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy and the corporations.