For months now, John McCain has urged Barack Obama to visit Iraq. “It has been 873 days since Sen. Obama’s one and only visit to Iraq,” a McCain campaign statement said on May 30. “Before [he] decides to override the recommendations of our commanders in the field and surrender the fight, he should have the judgment to see for himself first-hand the conditions on the ground.”
Maybe McCain shouldn’t have been so emphatic. What if Obama went to Iraq, decided his position was the correct one, and then, in a major campaign coup, received what appeared to be the endorsement of the Iraqi prime minister? And — extra points — made himself look more statesmanlike in the process?
Obama arrived in Baghdad early this morning, and all that seems to have happened.
There’s no possibility that Obama will change his position in any substantive way. Under fire from the Democratic base for intimating that he might make a more gradual withdrawal from Iraq than previously promised, he reiterated his out-in-16-months position in a major speech before leaving on his fact-finding mission to Iraq. McCain complained that the timing smacked of bad faith. “Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy,” McCain said on Saturday. But Obama quieted the rumblings on his left.
Then, hours after McCain’s complaint, Obama appeared to win a trump-card endorsement of his proposal. In the days leading up to Obama’s visit, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was interviewed by the German magazine Der Spiegel, and his words seemed to come straight from Obama’s talking points.
“Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?” Der Spiegel asked.
“As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned,” Maliki answered. “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”
“Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November?” the magazine followed up. “Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?”
“Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic,” Maliki said. “Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans’ business. But it’s the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that’s where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.”
The Iraqi government quickly released a statement saying that Der Spiegel had “misunderstood and mistranslated” Maliki’s remarks, and that Maliki’s words “should not be understood as support to any U.S. presidential candidates.” But the Iraqis didn’t offer any alternate version of what Maliki had said, and the damage was done. The Obama campaign quickly accepted what appeared to be Maliki’s endorsement, and the McCain campaign was left to point out, correctly, that the prime minister of Iraq would not be in a position to make such statements had Obama had his way back in early 2007.
“The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders,” McCain national-security aide Randy Scheunemann said Saturday. “John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama. The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama’s views had prevailed.”
McCain got a boost on Sunday, when Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the setting of deadlines during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “If I were to say to you, ‘Let’s set a time line of getting all of our combat troops out within two years,’ what do you think would be the consequences of setting that kind of a time line?” asked host Chris Wallace.
“I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard,” Mullen answered. “I’m convinced at this point in time that coming — making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important…When I have discussions with commanders on the ground, basically — and I did a couple weeks ago — they are very, very adamant about continuing progress, about making decisions based on what’s actually happening in the battle space, and I just think that’s prudent.”
The McCain campaign immediately released another statement, citing Mullen’s comments. And if Mullen’s words helped McCain, so did those of Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military effort in Iraq, when he made the case against timetables in an interview with NBC. Asked whether a 16-month schedule would be “reasonable,” Petraeus answered, “It depends on the conditions, depends on the missions set, depends on the enemy. The enemy does get a vote and is sometimes an independent variable. Lots of different factors I think that would be tied up in that.”
But Petraeus stressed two other factors as well. One, Maliki can say what he wants. “For a long, we used to say ‘when is this sovereign government going to make some sovereign decisions,’“ Petraeus said. “Well they have done that…” And two, events on the ground in Iraq will affect the U.S. withdrawal schedule. And so will events in the United States. “You do have to understand the factors and the background in which all of this is taking place in Iraq,” Petraeus said. “As well as in our own country and coalition countries.”