By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama announced plans yesterday for a midsummer trip that will take him to the Middle East and Europe for firsthand observation and consultations with foreign leaders while providing him an opportunity to bolster his national security credentials for the fall election against Republican John McCain.
On the same day Obama made a private visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to speak with wounded veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, his campaign said the senator from Illinois will visit Israel, Jordan, Germany, France and Britain.
Obama had said earlier that he would go to Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, as well. No mention was made of those countries in yesterday's announcement, and campaign officials declined to discuss any aspects of those visits, citing security concerns. He last visited Iraq in January 2006 as part of a congressional delegation.
The foreign tour comes amid questions about whether Obama is at a political disadvantage on national security issues against his Republican rival, who has a long résumé of experience in those subjects both as a former naval officer and from more than two decades in Congress.
Obama has said he is eager to challenge the senator from Arizona and has made clear he is confident that, despite a brief tenure in the Senate, he can draw a favorable contrast with McCain on his command of the issues and the quality of his judgments. Democratic allies also believe the upcoming trip will offer a pointed message that he does not intend to cede foreign policy ground to his rival.
"This trip will be an important opportunity for me to assess the situation in countries that are critical to American national security and to consult with some of our closest friends and allies about the common challenges we face," Obama said in a statement released by his campaign.
Obama was a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and used his opposition effectively, particularly in the early stages of the Democratic primaries, to put Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted for the resolution authorizing the war, on the defensive. Now, as he prepares for his visit to Iraq, two forces are bearing down on his idea of troop withdrawal: a general-election campaign in which terrorism remains the Republicans' strongest issue and a relatively improved security situation in Iraq that many attribute to President Bush's troop buildup.
Both appear to be driving Obama toward a more measured exit strategy -- or at least a rhetorical emphasis that is couched more for a general-election audience than for antiwar Democratic activists. Republicans already are accusing him of changing his position.
On Friday, appearing with Clinton (D-N.Y.) in Unity, N.H., Obama described the choice for voters in November as one between a McCain policy that would leave U.S. forces deployed for decades or "a gradual, responsible withdrawal from Iraq." Speaking yesterday before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Obama called the war "ill-conceived from the start," but said, "We have to bring the war in Iraq to a respectable, responsible and honorable end."
Some advisers acknowledge privately that Obama is now emphasizing the need to be "responsible" in handling Iraq -- rather than emphasizing urgency in getting troops out -- to appear more centrist, a substantial adjustment of his original antiwar stance.
But Denis McDonough, Obama's senior foreign policy adviser, took issue with any suggestion that Obama has changed policies. He said that Obama has consistently viewed Iraq as a diversion from the war in Afghanistan and the battle against al-Qaeda, that he has long argued that the United States must be careful in how it withdraws from Iraq, and that the U.S.-led coalition should use the leverage of its forces there to pressure Iraqi leaders for political reconciliation.
"Those three fundamental tenets have remained consistent," McDonough said in a telephone interview.
Obama's stated policy would be to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq soon after being sworn in as president and to have all combat forces out within about 16 months, leaving behind a residual force. What is not clear is how he would act if there were a spike in violence there early in his presidency or as U.S. forces were being withdrawn.
Earlier this month, Obama spoke with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who later told Washington Post editors and reporters that Obama indicated to him that a Democratic administration "will not take any irresponsible, reckless, sudden decisions or action to endanger your gains, your achievements, your stability or security."
McCain, who has visited Iraq repeatedly since the war was launched, has pressed Obama to visit Iraq, arguing that his rival will see firsthand that the "surge" policy that he supported and that Obama opposed has been a success. At one point, McCain suggested that the two candidates travel together. Obama rejected that idea, saying he did not want to be part of a "political stunt."
McCain staked his candidacy on the troop buildup and now hopes to reap political dividends in the face of evidence that it has helped reduce violence and U.S. casualties. Speaking at the same Latino forum yesterday, McCain declared, "We're winning in Iraq, and we'll withdraw, but we'll withdraw with victory and honor."
McDonough said Obama's view of the troop buildup is that, while it has reduced violence, it has failed to bring about the political reconciliation that was part of Bush's stated objective. "We have not seen a commensurate amount of political progress from the Iraqi leaders," he said.
Obama also may use the contents of a new report from the Government Accountability Office, which while acknowledging a reduction in violence, painted a far more downbeat portrait of Iraq's future than a Pentagon reported released around the same time.
There is another factor that could potentially come into play as Obama deepens his Iraq policy: his newfound alliance with Clinton and his move to incorporate her foreign policy advisers into his team. In trying to unite the party, Obama has described his differences with Clinton as negligible.
"If you look at my positions and Senator Clinton's, there's not a lot of difference, which is why it's so easy for advisers, senior advisers of Senator Clinton, to support my candidacy," Obama said at a meeting of his new working group on national security earlier this month.