WASHINGTON — John McCain and Barack Obama clashed repeatedly over foreign policy in their first presidential debate Friday night, crossing swords on Iran and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain made the most notable misstatements and stumbled over the names of the leaders of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose name he couldn't pronounce, and of Pakistan, referring to the latter as "Qadari" instead of Asif Ali Zardari.
McCain incorrectly asserted that former Gen. Pervez Musharraf rescued Pakistan from being a "failed state" when he seized power in a 1999 coup.
"The problem with the strategy that's been pursued was that for 10 years we coddled Musharraf. We alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic," Obama said.
"There was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power," responded McCain. "Everybody who was around then and had been there and knew about it knew that it was a failed state."
Though Pakistan was wrestling with problems like tensions with India and serious poverty when Musharraf took power in an October 1999 coup, it had a democratically elected government and was far from being a "failed state" — a country in social and economic collapse where the government no longer exercises authority.
On Iraq, McCain went after Obama for opposing the 2007 surge into Iraq, contending that the addition of 30,000 troops succeeded in suppressing the sectarian violence that was ravaging the country.
"This strategy has succeeded, and we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor," McCain said.
Many experts inside and outside the U.S. government, however, say that while the surge was crucial, it was not the only factor that has led to an 80 percent reduction in violence. Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the surge, has also said he will never declare a U.S. victory in Iraq.
"This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade," Petraeus said in a Sept. 11 interview with the BBC. "It's not war with a simple slogan."
Asked if he would send more troops to help contain the worsening war in Afghanistan, where U.S. combat casualties are now running higher than in Iraq, McCain said that he would, and that they would be used in the same strategy — a surge — that Obama "condemned in Iraq."
But senior U.S. defense officials say that a similar strategy can't be replicated in Afghanistan. They point out that the bulk of the additional troops sent to Iraq were deployed to contain violence in the densely populated neighborhoods of Baghdad, while the Taliban insurgency is based in the rugged mountains and sprawling deserts of Afghanistan.
Their fiercest duel was over dealing with Iran's nuclear program and whether to hold direct talks with Ahmadinejad. McCain ridiculed Obama for offering in 2007 to sit down without preconditions with the Iranian president to talk about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Obama, who long ago had softened that line, countered that one of McCain's own advisers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, along with four other former secretaries of state, had advocated talks without preconditions. That's true. Kissinger in fact earlier this month advocated unconditional talks. But as McCain pointed out, Kissinger had said the talks should start at the level of the secretary of state.
McCain clearly mischaracterized Obama's reaction to Russia's August invasion of its neighbor Georgia. "His first statement was, both sides ought to show restraint — again a little bit of naivete there," McCain said.
However, in a statement to reporters on Aug. 12, Obama condemned Russia's action and called for the attacks to stop. "There is no possible justification for the attacks," he said. He then said Georgia should refrain from using violence in the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY