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McCain Camp Mum on Iraq Timeline (Updated)

Up at his ranch near Sedona, Sen. John McCain must be fuming. After everything he’s done for President George W. Bush’s campaign efforts — the endorsement through clenched teeth after the bruising 20000 primary, stumping in 2004, etc. — Bush couldn’t even do McCain the simple courtesy of not completely undermining the Arizona senator’s entire Iraq policy as he makes his bid for the presidency.

Now that the Bush administration appears to be on the verge of agreeing to a timeline (or is it a timetable? a time horizon?) for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2011, the presumed GOP nominee is in a pretty tight spot. On the campaign trail, McCain frequently disparages any notion of a timeline for withdrawal, preferring instead to put his faith in the judgment of Gen. David Petraeus — whom McCain referred to as “one of the great military leaders in American history” last weekend at the Saddleback Church forum — to bring the troops home as developments on the ground permit.

Sen. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has had his 16-month timetable essentially endorsed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who is currently negotiating the new timeline with the Bush administration. The administration subsequently shifted its position from being adamantly against anything remotely resembling a timetable for troop withdrawal and agreed to a “time horizon,” the difference being largely semantic.

Of course, the agreement being negotiated reportedly provides for a change to the timeline if security deteriorates in the future, so it’s not totally artificial. But now that McCain finds himself all alone on one side — with objective reality, the Iraqi and American governments, and perhaps most important for him, his Democratic opponent standing together on the other — what is he to do? Flip-flop? Hold fast to an increasingly irrelevant position?

Not surprisingly, the McCain campaign has yet to make a statement on the new developments — it may be waiting to see the final result. But the prospect of reformulating its position on the central issue of its campaign, with a little more than two months remaining until the general election, must have some folks in Sedona and Arlington a bit worried.

UPDATE: At 8:07 EDT Sen John McCain released the following statement, doing its best to spin the days events favorably — i.e. the success of the surge allowed these discussions in the first place, and this is fundamentally a “conditions-based agreement” that is really what McCain has been arguing for the whole time.

“I am pleased that, following the surge strategy led by General David Petraeus and our brave men and women in uniform, security in Iraq has improved to the point at which we can responsibly talk with our Iraqi allies about U.S. troop withdrawals. Because of the hard-won success of this strategy, the Iraqi security forces are able to take on ever greater responsibility for security in their country. We should not forget that this is possible only because of the surge — a strategy many predicted would fail and that some cannot, even today, recognize as a stunning success.

“While negotiations with the Iraqi government are ongoing, reports indicate that all dates included in the draft security agreement are aspirational goals, based on conditions on the ground. Conditions-based withdrawals of U.S. troops are the precise opposite course of that advocated by Senator Obama. Senator Obama seeks to withdraw all U.S. combat forces regardless of the consequences for Iraq or for American national security, and in disregard of our commanders’ best counsel. Had we followed his course, Iraq could have easily descended into chaos and America would have suffered a catastrophic defeat. Instead, we are today negotiating a conditions-based agreement that will enable us to withdraw troops in victory and with honor.”

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