Obama did an interview with Newsweek as part of his grand media tour. The following question-and-answer is pretty stunning, given that it comes from the man who has based his campaign on a 16-month withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
OBAMA: Maliki recognizes that they’re going to need our help for some time to come, as our commanders insist, but that the help is of the sort that is consistent with the kind of phased withdrawal that I have promoted. We’re going to have to provide them with logistical support, intelligence support. We’re going to have to have a very capable counterterrorism strike force. We’re going to have to continue to train their Army and police to make them more effective.
NEWSWEEK: You’ve been talking about those limited missions for a long time. Having gone there and talked to both diplomatic and military folks, do you have a clearer idea of how big a force you’d need to leave behind to fulfill all those functions?
OBAMA: I do think that’s entirely conditions-based. It’s hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now.
So if the size of the final U.S. force needed in Iraq is conditions-based, and the timing of their stay in Iraq is conditions-based, and it is “hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now,” why is Obama’s current withdrawal timetable seemingly set in stone? What about it is not conditions-based? And if it’s hard to see six months into the future, is it easier to see sixteen months ahead?
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign, citing an interview McCain gave to CNN on Friday, is claiming McCain has recognized the correctness of Obama’s 16-month timetable. Not quite. But there’s no doubt that in some aspects McCain is moving closer to Obama’s position.
BLITZER: But if Maliki persists, you’re president and he says he wants U.S. troops out and he wants them out, let’s say, in a year or two years or 16 months or whatever, what do you do? Do you just listen to the prime minister?
MCCAIN: He won’t. He won’t.
BLITZER: How do you know?
MCCAIN: Because he knows it has to be conditions-based.
BLITZER: How do you know that?
MCCAIN: Because I know him. And I know him very well. And I know the other leaders. And I know — I’ve been there eight times, as you know. And I know them very, very well. And the point is…
BLITZER: So why do you think he said that 16 months is basically a pretty good timetable?
MCCAIN: He said it’s a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground. I think it’s a pretty good timetable, as we should — our horizons for withdrawal. But they have to be based on conditions on the ground.
Reading the transcript — I didn’t see the interview — it looks like McCain caught himself and changed “timetable” to “horizons.” Not wanting to get caught using “timetable” seems, more than anything, an indicator of the silliness of the current state of withdrawal/redeployment/timetable/time horizon semantics. But if McCain has moved closer to Obama’s position — and it seems that he has — McCain has also stuck to the core concept of a conditions-based withdrawal. That is a line from which he cannot move. And now Obama, although his left-wing base would never allow him to do it outright, seems to be moving in the direction of recognizing that the entire U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has to be conditions-based. The resolution of all this, of course, will come when everyone just agrees that conditions are healthy enough to allow a 16-month withdrawal. The horizon and the timetable will converge. Unless something goes wrong.