Though a majority of the American people support ending the war in Iraq and think the invasion was a mistake, Republicans have tried to put Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, into a box as he prepares for his first trip to Iraq since securing his party's presidential nomination.
Weeks ago, after Obama said he would be willing to listen to commanders in the ground to "refine" his policy, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Republicans said Obama was flip-flopping.
Then after Obama clarified that he is sticking by his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months, McCain and Republicans painted him as an intransigent partisan whose pending trip to Iraq is nothing more than a photo op.
"Senator Obama is departing soon on a trip abroad that will include a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Afghanistan," McCain said today at a town hall meeting in Albuquerque, "And I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time. In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
Another conundrum for Obama: the surge of US troops in Iraq having created a safer and more secure Baghdad, McCain can now (perhaps for the first time) point to an aspect of the war where he is able to argue that his judgment was superior to Obama's.
Obama seemed today a bit on the defensive on Iraq, as evidenced by edits Obama's campaign staff made to language on his campaign website decrying the surge as a failure, as well as a speech Obama delivered today in which he explained why the surge's success doesn't change his view of needing to withdraw U.S. forces in that country.
"For weeks, now, Senator McCain has argued that the gains of the surge mean that I should change my commitment to end the war," Obama said Tuesday morning in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, just blocks from the White House. "But this argument misconstrues what is necessary to succeed in Iraq, and stubbornly ignores the facts of the broader strategic picture that we face."
In the 18 months since the surge began, Obama argued, "the strain on our military has increased, our troops and their families have borne an enormous burden, and American taxpayers have spent another $200 billion in Iraq" and "the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated." Moreover, Obama argued, "Iraq’s leaders have not made the political progress that was the purpose of the surge. They have not invested tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to rebuild their country. They have not resolved their differences or shaped a new political compact."
What Obama did not mention today was that the surge had succeeded in ways he did not think it would.
After President Bush discussed the surge in a speech in January 2007, Obama said on CNN that he "did not see anything in the speech or anything in the run-up to the speech that provides evidence that an additional 15,000 to 20,000 more U.S. troops is going to make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that's taking place there."
Not surprisingly, Obama on Tuesday again reminded voters where the two men stood on the war six years ago.
"I opposed going to war in Iraq; Senator McCain was one of Washington’s biggest supporters for war," Obama said. "I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; Senator McCain claimed that we would be greeted as liberators, and that democracy would spread across the Middle East. Those were the judgments we made on the most important strategic question since the end of the Cold War."
McCain has tried to focus not on that 2002 decision, but on the one five years later. The Republican paints himself as -- like Obama -- an opponent of the Bush administration's strategy for the war, but says he -- not Obama -- displayed better judgment on the decision to send more troops into Iraq.
"Over the last year," McCain said today, "Senator Obama and I were part of a great debate about the war in Iraq. Both of us agreed the Bush administration had pursued a failed strategy there and that we had to change course. Where Senator Obama and I disagreed, fundamentally, was what course we should take. I called for a comprehensive new strategy -- a surge of troops and counterinsurgency to win the war. Senator Obama disagreed. He opposed the surge, predicted it would increase sectarian violence, and called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible."
McCain concluded that "today we know Senator Obama was wrong. The surge has succeeded. And because of its success, the next President will inherit a situation in Iraq in which America's enemies are on the run, and our soldiers are beginning to come home."
In his speech Obama found himself today responding to that focus.
"George Bush and John McCain don’t have a strategy for success in Iraq – they have a strategy for staying in Iraq," the Democrat said. "They said we couldn’t leave when violence was up, and they now say we can’t leave when violence is down. They refuse to press the Iraqis to make tough choices, and they label any timetable to redeploy our troops 'surrender,' even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government – not to a terrorist enemy."
Obama said that "at some point, a judgment must be made. Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we do not have unlimited resources to try to make it one. We are not going to kill every al Qaeda sympathizer, eliminate every trace of Iranian influence, or stand up a flawless democracy before we leave."
Over the weekend, as first reported by the New York Daily News, the Obama campaign website changed language from declaring "the surge is not working" to that which instead states: "despite the improved security situation, the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people and to reach the genuine political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge."
An older Obama campaign "fact sheet" from Fall 2007 states more unequivocally that "THE SURGE IS NOT WORKING" since "the Iraqi government has not stepped up." Obama also maintained that "reduced violence in Anbar Province is the result of cooperation between American forces and Sunni tribes, which started more than 18 months ago, long before the surge. The province is overwhelmingly Sunni, and the tribal leaders there made a political decision to turn against al Qaeda. This does not demonstrate the success of the surge; it demonstrates that the solutions in Iraq are political, not military."
Obama's only mention of Anbar today was to say that the future that "both America and Iraq will be more secure when the terrorist in Anbar is taken out by the Iraqi Army, and the criminal in Baghdad fears Iraqi Police, not just coalition forces."