WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain predicted Thursday that most U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of his first term, leaving behind a fragile but functioning democracy.
"The Iraq war has been won" by January 2013, McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in a speech outlining what he hoped to accomplish in his first four years.
A smaller core of U.S. troops in non-combat roles would remain in Iraq, McCain said in Columbus, Ohio.
The vision for a U.S. presence in Iraq that McCain sketched isn't appreciably different from that promised for months by his Democratic opponents. But unlike Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain still hasn't put a timetable on when he would begin combat troop reductions. He told reporters after the speech that would depend on when progress toward victory was made.
McCain has been under attack for weeks by Democrats and liberal interest groups for his many previous remarks that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years or more. Although McCain made clear that he envisioned that presence in a non-hostile environment — much as U.S. troops remain in South Korea more than 50 years after the Korean War ended — his opponents clearly hope that his word choice will hurt McCain with a war-weary electorate.
"First McCain said he is fine with a U.S. presence in Iraq for 100 years," said Eli Pariser, an executive director of MoveOn.org, the anti-war group whose political wing produced an anti-McCain ad. "Now he is saying U.S. troops may come home in five years. First he said he was opposed to setting a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals. Now he favors it."
McCain offered no roadmap to victory.
"He laid out what his dream was ... without offering one single solitary concrete way explaining how he'd do the things he stated," said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
McCain also predicted that the threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan would be "greatly reduced but not eliminated" and that Osama bin Laden would be killed or captured.
McCain envisioned all his major proposals working out swimmingly, such as robust economic growth thanks to extending the Bush tax cuts, lowering the corporate tax rate, phasing out the Alternative Minimum Tax, and signing more free trade agreements.
McCain also promised a new era of effective bipartisanship, of asking Democrats to serve in his administration and being willing to "work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again. ... And I won't care who gets the credit."
Nevertheless, it's difficult to imagine Washington as a sauna of warm feelings between Democrats and Republicans in the immediate future, given McCain's determination to prosecute the Iraq war; his promise to veto earmarks and kill many — though unidentified — federal programs, all of which have some constituency in Congress; and his vision of a federal judiciary that hews to the conservative desires of the Republican Party.
"I want to leave office knowing that America is safer, freer and wealthier than when I was elected," McCain said. Aides said that word choice was not intended to suggest that McCain, 71, would consider serving only one term.
Mindful of the scandals and investigations that engulfed the Clinton and Bush administrations, McCain also promised "a new standard for transparency and accountability," including weekly news conferences and regular visits to Congress to take questions from members of both parties, much as the prime minister of Great Britain does in the House of Commons.
Democrats mocked McCain's promise of transparency, noting that his multi-millionaire wife, Cindy McCain, refuses to release her tax returns.
"Whether he is taking President Bush's fiscal policies to new extremes, continuing a stay-the-course strategy in Iraq that has distracted from the real war on terror, or pretending he would bring transparency to government after refusing to even release his own tax records, Senator McCain found yet another way to show he's the wrong choice for America's future," said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.