A speech he gave on May 15, 2008 (McCain Outlines Vision for First Term), however, has been widely criticized for going back on that position, and establishing just such a timetable.
In describing what he envisioned happening by the end of his first presidential term, McCain said this:
By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won.
In response, several people claimed that McCain had endorsed a timetable for withdrawal, and some criticized him for contradicting his "no timetable" pledge:
Republican John McCain declared for the first time Thursday he believes the Iraq war can be won by 2013, although he rejected suggestions that his talk of a timetable put him on the same side as Democrats clamoring for full-scale troop withdrawals ... Later, as the Arizona senator drove to the airport on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, McCain was peppered by reporters with questions about the timetable.
-- McCain believes Iraq war can be won by 2013, Glen Johnson, Associated Press, May 15, 2008.
Somebody who up until yesterday was insisting that you couldn't lay out a timetable for starting to bring down our troops and then suddenly, apparently had a vision in which he now believes that all of our troops are going to be out by 2013, although can't spell out any concrete steps in terms of how we are going to achieve it. It strikes me that he's the one that has been inconsistent.
-- Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (IL), May 16, 2008. [st]
McCain, however, has also altered his position. In May, after spending months scolding opponents who proposed withdrawal timetables, he reversed course and said he hoped to see most troops home by 2013.
-- Republicans seize on Obama's comments on Iraq, Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2008.
But these descriptions of McCain as setting a timetable in his May 15 speech are false. McCain's speech was offering his prediction of what events will have taken place by the end of his first term. Among the events he was predicting was a victory in Iraq and the establishment of a stable democracy in that country capable of managing its own security. This is consistent with McCain's previous pledges that he would not set a timetable for withdrawal because he would not remove troops from Iraq prior to its being stable and self-sustaining (that is, prior to victory). In his speech, McCain is simply predicting that -- during his presidency -- Iraq will have achieved that state by the end of his first term, in January 2013. McCain has consistently stated that withdrawal should be contingent on and occur after victory; his May 15 speech is predicting that victory will happen by January 2013.
To draw an analogy: If I say, "We are having dinner by 8PM, no matter what," then I'm setting a timetable for dinner. If I instead say, "We are having dinner once we've done our chores, and I predict that we'll be done with our chores by 8PM," I'm not setting a timetable for dinner. Rather, I'm setting a condition for what has to happen before dinner occurs, and offering a prediction of when that condition will be met.
And this is in keeping with many of the other statements -- predictions -- McCain made in his speech:
What I want to do today is take a little time to describe what I would hope to have achieved at the end of my first term as President. I cannot guarantee I will have achieved these things. ... The following are conditions I intend to achieve. ... The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced but not eliminated. ... The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants. There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven. ... There still has not been a major terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. ... This is the progress I want us to achieve during my presidency.
McCain makes it very clear that he's issuing predictions. (Johnson's article admits as much when it describes McCain as having "peered through a crystal ball to 2013 and envisioned" what will happen in the future.) And some of the predictions that he makes -- for instance, regarding the death of Osama bin Laden, and the absence of major terrorist attacks on the U.S. -- can't be construed as timetables, because (unlike the deployment of soldiers) they're not things any president has direct control over.
Of course, McCain might be wrong in some or all of his predictions. If he is, then he should be held responsible for making false predictions. But his prediction about Iraq is just that: a prediction, not a violation of his pledge against timetables. To say otherwise is a distortion.