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Bill Adair
By Bill Adair October 2, 2008
Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan October 2, 2008

McCain refused to commit

During the vice presidential debate in St. Louis, Joe Biden argued for a vigorous diplomacy and attacked John McCain's approach to foreign policy.

"John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn't even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now. I find that incredible," Biden said.

Biden was referring to an interview McCain gave with Radio Caracol in Miami on Sept. 17 in which McCain was asked if he would invite José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, to the White House.

McCain's tangled and somewhat confused response prompted lots of criticism. Democrats said it illustrated reluctance by the Bush administration — and now McCain — to engage in diplomacy even with longtime allies.

Here's the relevant portion of the interview:

Q: Senator, finally, let’s talk about Spain. If you’re elected president, would you be willing to invite President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to the White House, to meet with you?

A: I would be willing to meet with those leaders who are our friends and want to work with us in a cooperative fashion. And by the way, President Calderón of Mexico is fighting a very, very tough fight against the drug cartels. I’m glad we’re now working in cooperation with the Mexican government on the Merida plan, and I intend to move forward with the relations and invite as many of them as I can of those leaders to the White House.

Q: Would that invitation be extended to the Zapatero government? To the president, itself?

A: Uh, I don’t, you know, honestly, I have to look at the relations and the situations and the priorities, but I can assure you: I will establish closer relations with our friends, and I will stand up  to those who want to do harm to the United States of America. I know how to do both.

Q: So, you have to wait and see if he’s willing to, to meet with you, or you be… able to do it? In the White House?

A: Well, again… I, I don’t… All I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us, and standing up to those who are not, and that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America, and the entire region.

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Q: OK, what about Europe? I’m talking about the President of Spain. Are you willing to meet with him, if you’re elected president?

A: I’m willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom. And I will stand up to those that do not.

McCain's reluctance to meet with Zapatero was odd because Spain is a member of NATO and a longtime U.S. ally. The CIA World Factbook calls it "a global champion of freedom." The U.S. State Department says "Spain and the United States have a long history of official relations and are closely associated in many fields."

But it's worth noting that U.S.-Spain relations have suffered since Zapatero became prime minister in 2004 and withdrew Spanish troops that were helping the U.S. war in Iraq.

We listened to the McCain interview several times and got the impression that the senator was confused during the first few questions. The interviewer says Zapatero's name quickly and it seemed to us that McCain did not recognize the name. His answer suggests he is focused on other leaders from Latin America. But the interviewer seems to notice his confusion and reminds him "OK, what about Europe? I’m talking about the president of Spain."

But McCain's reply does not suggest that registered with him and he offers a more general reply about meeting with "any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are."

We would have accepted a McCain-was-confused explanation for this one, but when the issue first came up during the campaign, the McCain campaign sent reporters a statement from foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann that said McCain's answer was intentional.

"The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero — and id'd him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred. Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," Scheunemann said in an e-mail sent to the Washington Post and CNN.

Scheunemann said that if elected, McCain "will meet with a wide range of allies in a wide variety of venues but is not going to spell out scheduling and meeting location specifics in advance."

To us, McCain seemed confused. But Scheunemann's statement is adamant that McCain knew the subject was Spain. As a result, his comment that "I have to look at the relations and the situations and the priorities" indicates at least some doubt about U.S.-Spanish relations.

Which bring us back to Biden's statement. Biden said, "John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn't even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now." Our reading of the interview is that McCain won't commit himself in advance to meeting or not meeting with the government of Spain. That's very different from refusing to meet with Spain.

Biden could have criticized McCain for that noncommittal stance and been more accurate. But instead Biden took it a step further and said McCain refused outright to meet with Spain. We rate Biden's statement Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

New York Times, Transcript of the Presidential Debate , Sept. 26, 2008

CIA World Factbook, Spain, accessed Sept. 29, 2008

U.S. State Department, Background Note: Spain , accessed Sept. 29, 2008

International Herald Tribune, Spain welcomes Rice with hope for better ties, May 28, 2007

YouTube, CNN segment on McCain interview , Sept. 18, 2008

Associated Press, McCain cagey, or confused, about meeting Spain's Zapatero , Sept. 18, 2008

Washington Post, McCain slights Spanish prime minister , Sept. 18, 2008

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