In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Obama pledged that he would “remove our combat brigades from Iraq and increase our military, political, and economic commitment to Afghanistan" as president.
Asked Tuesday night about Obama’s comments, McCain got in a slap about his opponent's slender foreign policy credentials, although he also included other Democrats in his critique as lacking “judgment.”
“They don’t understand the implications of failure in Iraq: that it will directly affect Afghanistan and the entire Middle East,” McCain said. “They simply either don’t have the experience or that judgment to understand that. If we fail in Iraq, the consequences of defeat will spread throughout the region.”
“They all take simple views,” McCain said of the Democratic contenders. “Sen. Obama and the others wanted to threaten (Pakistani leader Pervez) Musharraf with cutting off aid. We didn’t want threaten to cut off aid; we wanted to work with him and get him to make the progress that he is making.”
McCain cites 'experience and judgment'
He added, “That’s the difference between (having) experience and judgment — and not having it.”
McCain has served in the Congress since 1983, first in the House, and, since 1987, in the Senate. Obama has served in the Senate since 2005.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “John McCain supported taking our focus off of al Qaida and invading Iraq; Barack Obama opposed the war. John McCain wants to continue an open-ended commitment of our troops to Iraq; Barack Obama will end the war and provide more troops in Afghanistan."
Psaki also said McCain "wants to give President Musharraf a blank check; Barack Obama wants a Pakistan policy that is focused on results. That’s the difference between the failed foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney years, and Obama’s judgment to lead.”
Obama’s argument is a familiar staple of Democratic rhetoric on Capitol Hill.
On Monday night, the Democratic-controlled House OK'd a bill providing $30 billion for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, but nothing for Iraq.
It was a good snapshot of Democratic “out of Iraq, shift to Afghanistan” sentiment since 201 out of the 231 House Democrats voted for it.
However on Wednesday the House gave in to pressure from the Senate and passed $70 billion in funds for both Afghanistan and Iraq operations.
Seventy-eight Democrats voted for the Afghanistan-Iraq funds while 141 Democrats voted "no."
Only one Republican voted against the funds, while 194 voted "yes."
“Afghanistan is the primary front of the fight against Islamic extremism, but for too long we have taken our eye off the ball,” argued the House Democrats’ leader on military policy, Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton last week.
Skelton said, “I am afraid that if we do not reallocate some resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, we risk two strategic failures, not just one.”
Skelton said Monday that he was “encouraged by reports that suggest the Administration may be listening to calls for an increased focus on Afghanistan and is considering a range of steps to stop the deterioration of security conditions in the country.”
Echoes of the 2004 debate
And if all this has a déjà vu feeling to it, it shouldn’t be surprising.
In his first debate with President Bush in 2004, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry assailed the president for “diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq.”
But even as Obama and other Democratic leaders continue to make an Afghanistan pitch similar to the one that Kerry made four years ago, the strategic picture has become more muddled recently.
Some congressional Democrats who specialize in military policy say the situation in Iraq is improving, while conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating.
Armed Services Committee member Rep. Gene Taylor, D- Miss., who has just returned from a trip to Iraq, said Tuesday, “I’ve got to admit, I’m guardedly optimistic about what’s happening in Iraq. I was just there this last weekend."
He added, "Let’s face it: the casualties, thank goodness, are down. We have, for a number of reasons, gotten more support from amongst the Iraqi leaders not necessary the elected leaders, but the sheiks.”
He said factors including “al Qaida overplaying their hand” and the U.S. “funneling money to the sheiks to take care of their jobs in return for good behavior” had helped in bringing reduction of violence to Iraq in recent months.
“For several reasons things are trending the right way in Iraq,” he said.
Taylor added that he did not know if the U.S. needed to invest more troops in Afghanistan. “It really is a mixed bag. I’m very much troubled by the resurgence of the drug trade in Afghanistan,” he said. “I had someone from the State Department admit that Karzai’s brother is one of the biggest dealers over there. One of the things the president of that country ought to be doing to telling his own brother to get out of the drug business.”
As for the future of nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Taylor said, “Let’s face it, Iraq has much better chance because of the oil revenues” of becoming “a self-sufficient nation.” He added Iraq had water resources and fertile soil. ”That’s good place to be, if they could just get their political situation on line.”
In contrast, Taylor said, Afghanistan has the disadvantages of being “a dirt-poor country” and “its history has been as a place where trade flowed through, but not much was done there.”
Taylor has not endorsed any of the Democratic presidential contenders.
Murtha's alarm over Afghanistan
Another top House Democrat, Defense Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania said Tuesday he was “very worried about Afghanistan. What I’m worried about is the Taliban getting more control of more and more provinces; the poppy production going up.”
“We’ve got an opportunity in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, I just don’t know,” he said.
Murtha said his alarm about the deterioration in Afghanistan was based partly on a recent conversation with NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. John Craddock who has responsibility for NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
Murtha added, “We can not win any of these wars; they (the people in Iraq and Afghanistan) have to win them themselves.”
Like Taylor, Murtha has not endorsed any of the presidential contenders.
Asked whether Afghanistan is in more peril now than it was 18 months ago, McCain said yes, but added, “I don’t think it is due to our concentration on Iraq. It is due to a number of other failures including corruption in government, poppy crops,” and among other factors, the safe haven for al Qaida soldiers in the Pakistani region of Waziristan.