Video: Obama denies shifting on Iraq

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/7/2008 5:03:09 PM ET 2008-07-07T21:03:09

When a candidate accuses the news media of making too much of one of his statements, you might suspect that he’s trying to tamp down a potentially damaging debate.

In a Fourth of July dust-up that many Americans may have missed while out shopping for charcoal briquettes, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told reporters over the holiday weekend they were making way too much of his statement that he will “refine” his Iraq policy.

After he makes his upcoming trip to Iraq and takes a look at conditions there, he said on July 3, “I'm sure I'll have more information and (will) continue to refine my policy."

He said his intent was still to “begin withdrawing troops and having our combat troops out in 16 months.”

But “I would be a poor commander in chief if I didn't take facts on the ground into account," he noted.

Two days later, Obama was still complaining about the press coverage. “I was a little puzzled by the frenzy that I set off with what I thought was a pretty innocuous statement.”

When is the next Democratic primary so that disgruntled anti-war voters can express any unhappiness they might feel about Obama’s “refining” his stand?

Too late to switch
Of course, that moment has passed. Now the Democrats have their nominee. It is improbable Sen. Hillary Clinton would allow her name to be placed into nomination at the Democratic convention next month as the out-of-Iraq-now challenger to Obama.

Obama may have had a good case that the media had gone into an unreasonable tizzy over his remarks last Wednesday. He has always been committed to less than total withdrawal, despite what some of his supporters might have thought.

Video: Obama: 'I have not equivocated' For one thing, close readers will not overlook Obama’s use of the phrase “combat troops.” That implies that other troops — trainers, observers, etc. — he calls them “residual troops” — would remain in Iraq, since training the Iraq army and police would remain a mission under would-be President Obama.

“What kinds of troop presences will we need in order for that (training) to occur?” Obama wondered last week. “What kind of troop presence do we need to have a counterterrorism strike force in Iraq that assures that al Qaida does not regain a foothold there?”

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Very good questions, both of them — and ones Obama has not answered.

'Facts on the ground' will decide policy
His comment: “Those are all issues that obviously are going to be determined by the facts on the ground.”

But well before last week’s hubbub, there was plenty in Obama’s record to give comfort to both the out-of-Iraq-now voters and the “we can’t withdraw precipitously” voters.

In fact Obama has voted both against the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (on June 22, 2006) and for forcing the withdrawal of troops by cutting off funding for military operations in Iraq (on May 24, 2007 and Nov. 16, 2007).

His first detailed Iraq plan back on Nov. 20, 2006 told voters much of what we know today: if he were president, he would keep some troops in Iraq, and certainly keep more troops close by Iraq.

No rigid timetable for pullout
Troops should be withdrawn, he said in 2006, but the president should “work with our military commanders” to figure out the best plan to do so.

“I am not suggesting this timetable be overly rigid,” he said.  “We should be willing to adjust to the realties on the ground.” What Obama said last week echoes this.

And the withdrawal, Obama said in 2006, “could be suspended if at any point U.S. commanders believe that a further reduction would put American troops in danger.”

“Drawing down our troops in Iraq will allow us to redeploy additional troops to Northern Iraq” — which is also in Iraq — “and elsewhere in the in the region as an over-the-horizon force” to “allow our troops to strike directly at al Qaida wherever it may exist” — in Iraq, for instance.

And he said some U.S. troops might need to remain in Iraq in order to “send a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria that we intend to remain a key player in this region.”

It’s true that by September 2007 he had become more specific in his timetable: “our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month. If we start now, all of our combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the end of next year (2008).”

But everyone knew that withdrawal would not “start now” (in 2007) — since President Bush would not order it, and there weren’t enough votes in Congress would not vote to force it.

Sounding the pragmatic note
Obama sounded the note of the pragmatist in April 2007.

Video: Obama on Iraq If Bush vetoed an Iraq spending bill that included a withdrawal timeline, then Obama said Congress would go ahead and provide the money anyway, because no lawmaker “wants to play chicken with our troops.”

“Obama caves to Bush,” declared an irate Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos web site reacting to Obama’s statement. Moulitsas called Obama’s stance “ridiculous.”

“Not only is it bad policy, not only is it bad politics, it's also a terrible negotiating approach. Instead of threatening Bush with even more restrictions and daring him to veto funding for the troops out of pique, Barack just surrendered to him.”

Clinton argument fails
And Clinton tried the line of attack that Obama had been too slow to come around to calling for withdrawal. “In fact, he voted for over $300 billion in funds for the war and waited 18 months to speak on the Senate floor about Iraq, delivering a speech AGAINST the (2006) Kerry amendment that set a hard deadline for withdrawal,” Clinton’s campaign complained in March.

But neither the Daily Kos argument nor the Clinton argument persuaded enough Democratic voters.

The singular advantage Obama had over his rivals Clinton and John Edwards is that he hadn’t voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution. In fact some voters were convinced that he had voted against it, (an impossibility since he wasn’t a member of the Senate in 2002).

In a sense when it came to Iraq, the Democratic primary season was always more about the past than the future.

And while there were other contenders who also didn’t vote for the 2002 Iraq resolution, (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. Mike Gravel, Rep. Dennis Kucinich), primary voters didn’t find them sufficiently credible or appealing.

And that’s how voters got to this point, with the questions facing the would-be president — “What kind of troop presence do we need to have a counterterrorism strike force in Iraq that assures that al Qaida does not regain a foothold there?”  — to be answered some day in the future.

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