WASHINGTON – Republican Sen. John McCain said Friday he supports the U.S. mission in Iraq days after faulting the Bush administration for misleading Americans into believing it would be "some kind of day at the beach."
The potential 2008 presidential candidate and staunch war supporter issued a statement explaining his position after his headline-grabbing comments criticizing the Bush administration.
"I have never intended my concern that the American people be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there," McCain said in the statement.
He complained in an appearance Tuesday about major mistakes by the administration, such as underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices necessary. The comment prompted criticism from the right and left that McCain was flip-flopping, contradicting his backing for Bush's policy.
"Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders. I'm just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be," the Arizona senator said.
He made the comments while campaigning for Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio.
Those phrases are closely associated with top members of the Bush administration, including the president.
Bush stood below a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" on May 1, 2003 after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. The war has continued since then, with the death of more than 2,600 members of the U.S. military. Vice President Dick Cheney said last year that the Iraqi insurgency was "in its final throes."
In a March 2003 interview on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," McCain was asked whether he believed the people of Iraq would treat U.S. forces as liberators.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," the senator replied.
Democrats criticized McCain on Friday, calling him a "Monday-morning quarterback" and arguing that he should try to change Iraq policy if he disagreed with Bush's handling of the war.
"McCain's latest criticism is simply more talk without action from a presidential wannabe," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for the Democratic group, Senate Majority Project.
Republican consultant Rich Galen, who worked in Iraq for the Defense Department, defended McCain, saying he was giving an "accurate description of where Americans are on this war" while also making the case it is necessary in the fight against terrorism.
All the potential 2008 presidential candidates are trying to make strategic decisions about how close they need to be to Bush, said Stephen Hess, a politics expert at the Brookings Institution think tank. McCain needs Bush's support to appear presidential, but he also needs to maintain his maverick image.
"He's making adjustments," Hess said. "He's trying to adjust his position to be the most advantageous."
Prior to this week, McCain has criticized Bush's public assessments of the war.
In a November speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he cautioned that the administration must accurately portray even negative events on the ground and tell the country that it will take a long time to win.
"If we can't retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield," he said in November.