By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008
ASPEN, Colo., July 25 -- It was a Friday of war and peace for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
He delivered a scathing broadside on the Iraq war policies of his Democratic rival, telling an organization of Hispanic veterans in Denver that Barack Obama has failed the test to become commander in chief and scolding him for the "audacity of hopelessness."
But a quick flight over the mountains delivered McCain to a more mellow place: a private meeting here with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom he praised as "an inspiration for all of mankind."
McCain's gentle ways with the Dalai Lama, who patted the senator's hand and called him his "old friend" in a brief appearance before reporters, was a jarring contrast to his tough language earlier in the day, when the senator from Arizona stepped up his rhetoric about the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Iraq last year.
Obama opposed that deployment, a position that McCain said Friday would have left "Iraq and our strategic position in the Middle East in ruins, risking a wider war in the near future."
The decision on whether to deploy additional troops "amounted to a real-time test for a future commander in chief," McCain said. "America passed that test. I believe my judgment passed that test. And I believe Senator Obama's failed."
But McCain seemed to acknowledge Obama's idea that U.S. combat forces could be withdrawn with 16 months. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he regards that plan favorably, and in a CNN interview McCain called it "a pretty good timetable, as we should have horizons for withdrawal, but they have to be based on conditions on the ground."
Ever since Maliki seemed to endorse Obama's schedule, McCain has looked for another way to critique his rival's position on Iraq.
He has highlighted, in addition to Obama's opposition to the troop deployment, a lone vote the Democrat cast against funding the war effort. The Obama campaign bristled at the new criticism, responding that the vote was intended to try to force a deadline for removing troops, and that the Illinois senator had also voted 10 times to fund the war effort.
"The American people are looking for a serious debate about the way forward in Iraq and Afghanistan, and angry, false accusations will do nothing to accomplish that goal," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Barack Obama and John McCain may differ over our strategy in Iraq, but they are united in their support for our brave troops and their desire to protect this nation. Senator McCain's constant suggestion otherwise is not worthy of the campaign he claimed he would run or the magnitude of the challenges this nation faces."
McCain has cast his advocacy of the troop deployments as an act of political courage, because sending additional troops was unpopular with a public disenchanted with the war, and as a mark of his superior military knowledge.
"My choice was not smart politics," McCain said. "It didn't test well in focus groups. It ignored all the polls. It also didn't matter."
By contrast, McCain said, Obama chose a politically popular position that he said would have forced U.S. troops to "retreat under fire."
John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told reporters that McCain had requested the meeting with the Dalai Lama months ago. Denunciation of China's handling of Tibet is one area of agreement among the political candidates, and Ackerly said the Dalai Lama had also spoken with Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"And the Dalai Lama doesn't talk on the phone very often," Ackerly said.
The Dalai Lama, who has been in exile nearly 60 years, wants the Chinese government to grant autonomy to Tibet.
McCain called on China to renew talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama and to release Tibetan prisoners arrested after anti-Beijing riots broke out March 14 in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
The United States wants good relations with China, McCain said, "but it does no service to the Chinese government and certainly no service to the people of China for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of human rights in China does not concern us."