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John McCain's singular theme: Barack Obama just "doesn't understand"

September 27, 2008 |  5:30 am

John McCain had a single tune he wanted to sing in his Friday night debate with Barack Obama, and he was willing to run the risk of sounding like a broken record to do it. John McCain

It took him a while to get to his refrain, because events demanded the first part of the forum deal with the economic crisis facing the nation.

But once the debate settled into its announced topic -- international issues -- McCain rarely lost an opportunity to make his core point: In matters of foreign policy, Obama just doesn't get it.

As the discussion turned to Iraq, in particular last year's "surge" in U.S. troops there, McCain said: "I'm afraid Sen. Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy."

On Afghanistan: "And yes, Sen. Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, it's got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq. It's going to have to be employed in Afghanistan."

On Pakistan: "I don't think that Sen. Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when [Pervez] Musharraf came to power." [Update: As a reader has noted, The Ticket should have -- and now will -- point out that this assertion is very much in dispute.]

On a president agreeing to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: What Sen. Obama doesn't seem to understand that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse' and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments. This is dangerous. It isn't just naive; it's dangerous."

On the conflict between Russia and Georgia: "I was interested in Sen. Obama's reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, 'Both sides ought to show restraint.' Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia."

Again, back to Iraq: "Sen. Obama still ...

... doesn't quite understand -- or doesn't get it -- that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages Al Qaeda. They would establish a base in Iraq."

And in case anyone failed to catch his drift (doubtful), McCain summed up with this: "And I honestly don't believe that Sen. Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas... ."

Obama disputed virtually every specific McCain raised. But he never delivered a concise sound bite challenging his rival's basic criticism. That might rank high on his "to-do" list for the next debate.

Obama had his moments during the back-and-forth on foreign affairs, with his best probably this on Iraq:

John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy.

You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong.

And he had a good rejoinder for the grief McCain gave him about the prospect of sitting down with Ahmadinejad. He noted that the Republican "said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he -- you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain? Spain is a NATO ally. ... If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism."

The Ticket has filed a complete copy of the debate transcript here.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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