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Iraq policy buzz elevates Obama

Barack Obama and the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, take a helicopter tour of Baghdad on Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Barack Obama and the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, take a helicopter tour of Baghdad on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

AMMAN, Jordan – When Sen. Barack Obama left Washington last week, he was under pressure to defend what Republican critics called an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq. By Monday, the White House and rival Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign were at pains to explain why the Iraq prime minister had seemingly all but endorsed Obama’s relatively rapid timeline for getting out.

Obama has certainly not won the argument over Iraq policy. Far from it. His proposal to withdraw U.S. combat forces over a 16-month period still faces serious questions, including some from the commanders who might be asked to implement it if he is elected.

But the curious turn of events made for an unexpected opening act for the Democrat’s weeklong tour of seven countries, demonstrating anew the combination of agility and good fortune that has marked his campaign.

Whether Obama can count on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the days ahead is another matter. The Iraqi government does not speak with one voice on this matter, and it is not yet clear how current negotiations with the administration will conclude and how much emphasis will be placed on making a withdrawal timetable or “time horizon” conditions-based.

Beyond that, Obama’s opposition to the troop “surge” – which McCain vociferously supported – that has helped quell violence and U.S. casualties leaves plenty of room for further questions about his judgment. McCain’s advisers were quick to suggest Monday that it was only because of the success of the increase that Obama can project the drawdown of troops over a 16-month period.

But as political theater, the events of the past few days have played unfailingly in the Democrat’s favor. On Friday, a day after Obama left for Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush administration officials announced that the United States and Iraq had agreed on a time horizon for removing troops. Then, twice in three days, Maliki embraced a withdrawal timeline similar to Obama’s. Beyond that, McCain shifted ground to declare that he, too, favors sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

McCain, campaigning in Maine, was blistering in his criticism of Obama on Monday, saying that his rival has been “completely wrong” on Iraq, “has no military experience whatsoever” and arguing again that any withdrawal from Iraq must be based on conditions on the ground.

The Republican’s campaign advisers noted that their candidate has also embraced a withdrawal timetable for Iraq. In a recent speech, he said his goal would be to remove all U.S. combat forces by the end of his first term as president. But McCain said that could happen only if Iraq is secure and stable. Obama, he said, has gotten it backward – calling for a timetable first and foremost, with no real regard for conditions on the ground.

“You’ve got a situation where Sen. Obama has been incessantly criticizing the Iraqi government for 18 months,” said Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser. “Now here’s something he thinks can work to his political advantage, and so he’s embracing it, while at the same time rejecting the considered military judgment of those who made the successes of the surge possible, like Gen. (David H.) Petraeus and Gen. (Raymond T.) Odierno.”

The Iraqi prime minister’s commentary about timetables was rolled out first through an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel, in which he explicitly mentioned Obama’s 16-month timetable and gave it a favorable review. Later, after urgent inquiries from officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad seeking clarification, a spokesman said that Maliki had been misinterpreted. But he did not specifically explain what was misstated.

Then on Monday, after Maliki met with Obama, his spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Iraqis were working toward a deadline that would call for U.S. combat forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2010, at most eight months after Obama’s timetable. He also said the timetable was not discussed when Maliki met with Obama and Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., who are accompanying the senator from Illinois.

White House press secretary Dana Perino was peppered with questions at her daily briefing on Monday about the apparent similarity between Obama’s plan and Maliki’s latest pronouncements.

Asked whether the administration would prefer that the Iraqis not talk about specific dates, she replied, “We don’t think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal. However, we understand that they’re a sovereign country, and they’ll be able to do that. We’re just not going to do it on our end.”

If there was a strategic goal for Obama’s trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, it was to broaden the debate from focusing largely on his proposal to withdraw combat forces from Iraq over a 16-month period to the question of whether the conflict in Iraq has sapped the United States’ ability to combat the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

As Obama prepared for his trip, almost all the focus was on his troop withdrawal plan for Iraq – and there was considerable criticism that his firm deadline ignored any consideration of conditions on the ground.

McCain led the criticism, saying Obama was wrong about the troop increase and was naive to establish such a short and seemingly rigid timeline for leaving Iraq. From Iraq, some military commanders weighed in as well, raising doubts as to the wisdom of Obama’s proposal.

Over the weekend, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also raised questions about setting such a timetable, calling it “very dangerous” to establish a deadline of about two years from now for withdrawing troops.

Against this criticism, Obama appeared determined not just to defend his timetable, but also to shift the focus of the debate. He used his speech to link the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to argue that the conflict in Iraq continues to deplete the U.S. military’s capacity to wage what he called the more important war, in Afghanistan.

McCain and Obama agree that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, but they remain far apart on how the war in Iraq fits into this equation, just as they remain at odds over the terms of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.