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John McCain and Barack Obama debated foreign policy on Sept. 26, 2008, including policies for dealing with Pakistan.
"(Obama) said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan," McCain said. "Now, you don't do that. You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government. ... I guarantee you I would not publicly state that I'm going to attack them."
McCain is distorting Obama's position by saying he wants to attack Pakistan, a statement we checked previously and found to be a Pants on Fire!
This time, Obama responded directly to McCain's criticsm.
"Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan," Obama replied. "Here's what I said — and if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know — that if the United States has al-Qaida, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out."
Then he added, "And, John, you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But coming from you, who in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know how credible that is."
It's a snappy comeback, but let's check its accuracy.
We reviewed McCain's previous comments on North Korea and found the "extinction" claim dates back to 1994, when McCain appeared on the interview show This Week with David Brinkley to discuss North Korea. At the time, North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, was refusing to allow inspections of his nuclear program.
Brinkley asked McCain what he would do about that.
"Well, I would make sure that China and Japan realize that it is in the United States' and their vital national security interests that North Korea not be a nuclear power and possess nuclear weapons, and that they should go along with and help enforce strong sanctions against Korea," McCain said. "If not, then the United States will have no choice but to militarily disable that nuclear capability."
Reporter Sam Donaldson, who also sat in on the interview, then asked McCain about the prospects of outright war with North Korea if the situation escalated.
" I think history shows us, especially in dealing with dictators, that a strong, resolute policy and position is what usually avoids what you're talking about," McCain said.
" You think they're bluffing?" Donaldson asked.
" I don't know, but I know what they understand and that is the threat of extinction," McCain replied.
So, he said it. The threat was implied rather than direct, but there's no mistaking the point McCain was seeking to make. But it was one time in 1994. That was 14 years ago, when McCain was not a candidate for president, and North Korea had a different leader. (Kim Il Sung would die later that year; the leadership would pass to his son, the current leader, Kim Jong Il.)
Now, about McCain's singing songs about bombing Iran. The basis for this statement is something McCain said at an April 18, 2007, campaign appearance held at a VFW hall in Murrells Inlet, S.C.
A man in the audience told McCain he thought Iran was causing problems in the Middle East. He then asked, "How many times do we have to prove that these people are blowing up people now, never mind if they get a nuclear weapon? When do we send an airmail message to Tehran?"
The audience clapped and there were a few scattered cheers.
"That old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran," McCain said, apparently referencing the Beach Boys' 1965 single "Barbara Ann." The audience laughed, then McCain sang softly, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb. Anyway..."
Video of the incident is available on YouTube. McCain said later it was a joke.
"When veterans are together, veterans joke," McCain said. "And I was with veterans and we were joking. And, if somebody can't understand that, my answer is, please get a life."
The McCain campaign never shied away from the bombing reference and played "Barbara Ann" at many of its rallies.
Obama's charge is based on things McCain did say. His comments about North Korea sound like an implied threat, even if it wasn't a direct ultimatum. But given that it was one remark from 14 years ago, we question its relevancy to today's campaign. Because Obama omits the context of the remark and North Korea is still in the headlines, voters would likely think McCain said it recently, which was not the case.
In the end, Obama is right that McCain said both things. But since the context of the Obama claim was a discussion of what "a president" should or shouldn't say publicly, we're not going to give full weight to the 14-year-old tough-talking remarks of a senator who at the time hadn't ever declared himself a candidate for the presidency. We rate Obama's statement Half True.
New York Times, Presidential Debate Transcript , Sept. 26, 2008
ABC News, "This Week with David Brinkley" transcript, June 12, 1994, accessed via Nexis
Associated Press, "McCain jokes about bombing Iran," April 19, 2007
YouTube.com, McCain Sings Bomb Iran, laughs
CNN, McCain on "Bomb Iran" Joke: "Get a Life," March 21, 2008
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