Mr. Obama on Iraq

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

BARACK OBAMA has taken a small but important step toward adjusting his outdated position on Iraq to the military and strategic realities of the war he may inherit. Sadly, he seems to be finding that the strident and rigid posture he struck during the primary campaign -- during which he promised to withdraw all combat forces in 16 months -- is inhibiting what looks like a worthy, necessary attempt to create the room for maneuver he will need to capably manage the war if he becomes president.

Mr. Obama's shift came when he was asked last week about his withdrawal plan, which he first proposed in late 2006, a time when Iraq appeared to be sliding into a sectarian civil war. Since then, a new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence, and the Iraqi government has gained control over most of the country. Among other things, Mr. Obama said "the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability" -- an apparent acknowledgment that the hard-won gains of the last year should not be squandered. He also said that "when I go to Iraq, and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

This statement hardly altered Mr. Obama's longstanding opposition to the war or his basic strategy of ending U.S. involvement in it as soon as possible. But it suggested that he won't pursue his 16-month timetable without regard to the consequences in Iraq or the counsel of U.S. commanders. As we see it, that's a modest but real step toward a responsible position on a conflict that, like it or not, involves vital U.S. interests. Yet Mr. Obama's words drew so much heat so quickly that he felt obliged to hold a second news conference the same day, in which he insisted that his position hadn't changed and affirmed that he hadn't seen "information that contradicts the notion" that the 16-month timetable was workable. Over the weekend some of his Democratic supporters argued that he can't afford even such a nuanced shift in position, lest he undermine his antiwar support and lessen the contrast between him and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.

In fact, Mr. Obama can't afford not to update his Iraq policy. Once he has the conversations he's promising with U.S. commanders, he will have plenty of information that "contradicts the notion" of his rigid plan. Iraq's improvement means that American forces probably can be reduced next year, but it would be folly to begin a forced march out of the country without regard to the risks of renewed sectarian warfare and escalating intervention in the country by Iran and other of Iraq's neighbors. The Democratic candidate is reportedly planning a visit to Iraq in the coming weeks. That will offer an opportunity for him to lay out a new position on the war that both distinguishes him from Mr. McCain and gives him the freedom to be an effective commander in chief.

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