By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008
FARGO, N.D., July 3 -- Sen. Barack Obama raised the possibility of slowing a promised gradual, 16-month withdrawal from Iraq if he is elected president, saying that Thursday he will consult with military commanders on an upcoming trip to the region and "continue to refine" his proposals.
"My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything I've said, was always premised on making sure our troops were safe," Obama told reporters as his campaign plane landed in North Dakota, a state no Democratic presidential candidate has carried since 1964. "And my guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe, and that Iraq is stable. And I'm going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold."
In a second, hastily convened news conference, Obama insisted that his policies have not changed, and that he has "not equivocated" or is not "searching for maneuvering room" on Iraq. Consultations with commanders in the coming weeks will be focused more on the size of U.S. forces needed to train and equip Iraqi military and police units, as well as maintaining a "counterterrorism strike force" to prevent al-Qaeda from making a comeback, he said.
"Let me be as clear as I can be: I intend to end this war," he said. "My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission. That is to end this war, responsibly, deliberately but decisively."
Thus far, he added, he has seen nothing to contradict his belief that one to two combat brigades could be pulled out each month over 16 months.
Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has long said the nation "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." During his hard-fought primary fight with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, he stuck to that 16-month timeline, building support for his candidacy among antiwar voters leery of the depth of Clinton's commitment to a pullout.
But since Obama secured the nomination, a series of pronouncements have helped ease him toward the political center. He backed a compromise on warrantless wiretapping, criticized a Supreme Court decision preventing the death penalty for child-rapists and did not criticize another decision scuttling the District of Columbia's handgun ban.
Thursday's comments were his most extensive on perhaps the most important foreign policy issue of the campaign, the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. It came during a swing through traditionally Republican states that Obama believes he can put into play this fall.
He stressed that he still thinks it would be "a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq" when conditions in Afghanistan have worsened, al-Qaeda has been regrouping in Pakistan and U.S. resources have been strained as the nation spends $10 billion to $12 billion a month in Iraq "that we desperately need here at home." A pledge to end the war elicited applause as he held a town hall meeting here under an umbrella of poplar trees at Yunker Farm.
But, he told reporters: "I have always said I would listen to the commanders on the ground. I have always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed. When I go to Iraq and have time to talk to the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."
Obama also suggested that aides to Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, had been working to create the impression "we were changing our policy when we haven't." And Republicans did not hesitate to pounce Thursday.
"There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience," said Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant. "Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician."
Obama's comments on Thursday capped a shift in tone that has been occurring since June, and it fit with his broader efforts to appeal to moderate and independent voters. Throughout the past week, Obama has been stressing values as he journeyed through conservative regions of swing states: patriotism in Independence, Mo.; faith-based social services in rural Ohio; and service in Colorado Springs.
Democratic allies said Obama is wise to try to hold down the margin of his losses in those conservative pockets in an effort to win the states. But on Thursday he began a swing through states that offer a stiffer challenge. President Bush beat Democratic rival John F. Kerry 63 percent to 36 percent in North Dakota four years ago. Friday, Obama will celebrate Independence Day in Montana, where Bush won 59 percent of the vote.
Campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro said Obama is serious about spreading the playing field beyond the handful of battleground states that have dominated presidential campaigns since Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide. Obama's advertising is already running in Montana and North Dakota, states with a combined six electoral college votes. A dozen staff members are on the ground in Montana. "We want to show the country we mean business," he said.
Obama and his aides said Thursday that the political environment has changed dramatically since 2004. Montana has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators; North Dakota's entire congressional delegation is Democratic.
Bush's popularity has plunged even in the West. Discontent has spread to all corners of the nation, and the economy is teetering under the strain of soaring energy and food prices. Moreover, the long primary season forced Obama to build an infrastructure even in the reddest of states, campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said. Montana, which sealed the nomination for Obama, still has the infrastructure remaining in place from its June 3 primary.
"I'm a firm believer that 90 percent of success is showing up, and Democrats haven't been showing up in these places and talking to people about we're how going to fix the health-care system, how we're going to lower gas prices, how we're going to bring good jobs at good wages," Obama said. "And I believe the American people across ideological spectrums, across political spectrums, are hungry for something different."
He added: "I think there's the possibility of a significant realignment politically in this election."
With that backdrop, the shift in tone on Iraq is all the more significant. Obama's comments on Thursday were his most extensive on the issue, and they leaned toward flexibility.
"We have a strategic interest in Iraq in making sure that it doesn't collapse," he said Thursday afternoon, saying he has always reserved the right to slow the pace of withdrawal if conditions warranted.
"I would be a poor commander in chief if I didn't take facts on the ground into account," he said.