Republican presidential contender John McCain on Wednesday called the four-year Iraq conflict "necessary and just" and accused anti-war Democrats, including their leading White House candidates, of recklessness.
Struggling to reinvigorate his troubled campaign, McCain reiterated his long-time criticism that President Bush initially went to war without a plan to succeed. But he also backed the commander in chief's recent troop increase and said he is right to veto legislation that places conditions on the war.
"In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering" when House Democrats enthusiastically passed legislation setting a timetable for a troop withdrawal, the Arizona Republican said in prepared remarks of a speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute.
"A defeat for the United States is a cause for mourning, not celebrating," he added.
Staking his candidacy on the war's outcome, McCain planted himself firmly on the side of the president he hopes to succeed and the three out of every four Republicans who view the war as a worthy cause.
Progress in Iraq
McCain's remarks came a week after he made his fifth trip to Iraq, where he caught tremendous flack for saying he saw signs of progress in Baghdad and was cautiously optimistic - even as he toured the capital under heavy military guard. Iraqis accused him of painting too rosy a picture and U.S. critics called him out of step with reality.
The episode threatened to undercut his credibility on a signature issue, defense, and the speech was meant to portray McCain as someone who puts the country's interests above presidential politics.
Addressing cadets at the military college, he cast himself as the most qualified Republican candidate to counter Democratic calls for withdrawal.
He ignored his GOP rivals, all of whom support the president on the war but none of whom has McCain's military experience or has been as closely aligned with the conflict as the senator. Instead, McCain assailed Democrats in Congress, including "their leading candidates for president."
Iraq war 'necessary and just'
McCain said the Democrats' pullout policy was politically expedient but strategically disastrous. He accused them of acting in "giddy anticipation of the next election."
"Lets put aside for a moment the small politics of the day," he said. "The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll."
Calling the war "necessary and just," McCain said those like him who support Bush's troop increase chose the "hard road" but "right road."
"Democrats, who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat, have chosen another road," he said, referring to the standoff between Democrats in control of Congress and Bush over war funding. "It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election."
A former Navy pilot, McCain is the only top-tier Republican candidate to have served in the military and he is the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Once the chief GOP critic on how the U.S. was waging the war, McCain became Bush's top Senate pitchman in January as he sought to sell skeptics on the troop increase. The senator had long sought more forces and his political fate became entwined with the new strategy.
The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed that a majority of Americans say going to war in Iraq was a mistake and half call it a hopeless cause. But among Republicans, roughly three in four say the United States made the right decision in going to war and call the cause worthy.