DENVER - Republican Sen. John McCain said yesterday that, as president, he would reach out to China and Russia in an effort to battle nuclear proliferation. He also parted company with the Bush administration over a controversial weapon designed to detect and destroy weapons of mass destruction buried deep within the earth.
"No problem we face poses a greater threat to us and the world than nuclear proliferation," the presumed GOP nominee said in a speech at the University of Denver. "In a time when followers of hateful and remorseless ideology are willing to destroy themselves to destroy us, the threat of suicide bombers with the means to wreak incomprehensible devastation should call the entire world to action."
The Arizona senator - who has called presidential rival Barack Obama, a Democrat senator from Illinois, "reckless" for suggesting diplomatic outreach to Iran and other enemies - said he supported Russia's suggestion that Iran could obtain any nuclear fuel it needs for civilian energy uses under international supervision. "Unfortunately, the Iranian government has so far rejected this idea," McCain said. "Perhaps with enough outside pressure and encouragement, they can be persuaded to change their minds before it is too late."
Seeking to distance himself from the White House, McCain also pledged to cancel "all further work" on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which had been a major initiative of the Bush administration. One of a class of earth-penetrating weapons, it was developed to destroy hardened, underground military bunkers used by countries seeking to hide weapons of mass destruction. Criticized for the potential of nuclear fallout, the "bunker buster" was withdrawn from the president's defense budget in 2005.
Although President Bush is holding private fundraisers for McCain this week, the Arizona senator seemed to join critics who have faulted Bush for his handling of international affairs.
"I'd like to suggest some steps we should take to chart a common vision for the future," McCain said. "It is a vision not of the United States acting alone, but building and participating in a community of nations all drawn together in this vital common purpose."
Campaigning in Colorado, a swing state that could be pivotal in the general election this fall, McCain also reversed his earlier opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and promised to seek a way to limit nuclear testing "in a verifiable manner that does not undermine the security or viability" of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
"It is time for the United States to show the kind of leadership the world expects from us, in the tradition of American presidents who worked to reduce the nuclear threat to mankind," he said.
As he tried to lay out his policy on nuclear weapons and security, McCain was interrupted four times by anti-war protesters within the first 10 minutes of his speech.
The young protesters, some dressed in business suits, rose intermittently during McCain's remarks. One waved a white banner that said, "Iraq Veterans Against the War." Others shouted: "Endless war!"
McCain tried to defuse the situation with humor. At one point, he joked that this "may turn into a longer speech than you anticipated."
"I have town hall meetings all the time. I'll be having one tomorrow, where people are allowed to come and state their views and we exchange them," McCain told the crowd. "One thing we don't do is interfere with other people's right to free speech, but that doesn't seem to be the case with these people." At that moment, his staff was escorting several protesters from the room.
A few minutes later, when McCain was interrupted by two protesters shouting "Iraq was not a threat," he responded directly, "I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends. ... Our troops will come home with victory and with honor." He added, "We are winning."
Johanna Neuman and Maeve Reston write for the Los Angeles Times