John McCain called yesterday for a more cooperative foreign policy enshrined in a new League of Democracies and declared that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay should be closed. But he also drew a sharp line with his Democratic rivals on the Iraq war.
The speech, tinged with personal reflection about the costs of war, did not offer new initiatives as much as it outlined McCain's view of the world. That outlook seems more multilateral than what critics call President Bush's go-it-alone approach to the world, which culminated in the invasion of Iraq with only the British by America's side among major allies.
McCain proposed a new organization, the League of Democracies, to "harness the vast influence of more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests."
"Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed," the presumptive Republican nominee told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. "We need to listen - we need to listen - to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies."
McCain, who sees foreign policy and national security as a strength against the eventual Democratic nominee, directly addressed the proposals of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to withdraw US troops by the middle of 2009.
"It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal," McCain said, drawing sustained applause.
The Democrats, he warned, "are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date."
The Democratic National Committee said McCain, in what his campaign had billed as a major policy speech, repackaged old rhetoric and did not offer a way forward in Iraq.
"John McCain is determined to carry out four more years of George Bush's failed policies, including an open-ended war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars while making us less safe," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a written statement.
Clinton issued a statement that read in part: "Like President Bush, Senator McCain wants to keep us tied to another country's civil war."
In the speech, McCain agreed with many Democrats on the need to explicitly ban torture - an issue on which he has broken with the Bush administration - so America can be a "model citizen."
"We must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are at the foundation of our society. We can't torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured," he said, drawing scattered applause. "I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control."
McCain described himself as a "realistic idealist" about the threats the United States faces in the world.
"Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war," McCain said.