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ANALYSIS

Obama Makes War Gains

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan, July 21 -- When Sen. Barack Obama left Washington last week, he was under pressure to defend what Republican critics called an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq. By Monday, the White House and rival Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign were at pains to explain why the Iraqi prime minister had seemingly all but endorsed Obama's relatively rapid timeline for getting out.

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Obama has certainly not won the argument over Iraq policy. Far from it. His proposal to withdraw U.S. combat forces over a 16-month period still faces serious questions, including from some of the commanders who might be asked to implement it if he is elected.

But the curious turn of events made for an unexpected opening act for the Democrat's week-long tour of seven countries, demonstrating anew the combination of agility and good fortune that has marked his campaign.

Whether Obama can count on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the days ahead is another matter. The Iraqi government does not speak with one voice on this matter, and it is not yet clear how current negotiations with the administration will conclude and how much emphasis will be placed on making a withdrawal timetable or "time horizon" conditions-based.

Beyond that, Obama's opposition to the troop "surge" that has helped quell violence and U.S. casualties -- and that McCain vociferously supported -- leaves plenty of room for further questions about his judgment at that moment. McCain's advisers were quick to suggest Monday that it was only because of the success of the increase that Obama can project the drawdown of troops over a 16-month period.

But as political theater, the events of the past few days have played unfailingly in the Democrat's favor. On Friday, a day after Obama left for Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush administration officials announced that the United States and Iraq had agreed on a time horizon for removing troops. Then, twice in three days, Maliki embraced a withdrawal timeline similar to Obama's. Beyond that, McCain shifted ground to declare that he, too, favors sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

McCain, campaigning in Maine, was blistering in his criticism of Obama on Monday. He said his rival has been "completely wrong" on Iraq and "has no military experience whatsoever," and argued again that any withdrawal from Iraq must be based on conditions on the ground.

The Republican's campaign advisers noted that he has also embraced a withdrawal timetable for Iraq. In a recent speech, he said his goal would be to remove all U.S. combat forces by the end of his first term as president. But McCain said that could happen only if Iraq is secure and stable. Obama, he said, has gotten it backward -- calling for a timetable first and foremost, with no real regard for conditions on the ground.

"You've got a situation where Senator Obama has been incessantly criticizing the Iraqi government for 18 months," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser. "Now here's something he thinks can work to his political advantage and so he's embracing it, while at the same time rejecting the considered military judgment of those who made the successes of the surge possible, like Gen. [David H.] Petraeus and Gen. [Raymond T.] Odierno."

The Iraqi prime minister's commentary about timetables was rolled out first through an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel in which he explicitly mentioned Obama's 16-month timetable and gave it a favorable review. Later, after urgent inquiries from officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad seeking clarification, a spokesman said that Maliki had been misinterpreted. But he did not specifically explain what was misstated.

Then on Monday, after Maliki met with Obama, his spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said the Iraqis were working toward a deadline that would call for U.S. combat forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2010, at most eight months after Obama's timetable. He also said the timetable was not discussed when Maliki met with Obama and Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who are accompanying the senator from Illinois.

White House press secretary Dana Perino was peppered with questions at her daily briefing on Monday about the apparent similarity between Obama's plan and Maliki's latest pronouncements.


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