By Karen DeYoung and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama, on his first and likely only overseas trip as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has remade the campaign's foreign policy playing field, neatly sidestepping Republican charges that he has been naive and wrong on Iraq and moving to a broader, post-Iraq focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In essence, Obama has declared the war in Iraq all but over. "There is security progress," he said during yesterday's news conference in Amman, Jordan. "Now we need a political solution." While a diminished U.S. force under his presidency would continue to protect U.S. personnel, target terrorists and provide training, he said, it would be up to Baghdad to consolidate the victory by "setting up a government that is working for the people."
Two days spent in Afghanistan and two days in Iraq, Obama said, reinforced his belief that it is time for the United States to move on. Calling the situation in Afghanistan "perilous and urgent," he said both U.S. military and Afghan government officials agree that "we must act now to reverse a deteriorating situation."
Obama's analysis has been buttressed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders who, to the dismay of the White House and Sen. John McCain, his Republican opponent, have publicly agreed with his call for completing a U.S. combat withdrawal from Iraq in 2010.
McCain argues that the United States is succeeding in Iraq -- although the war is still not over -- because of last year's "surge" of U.S. troops, which Obama opposed. McCain's aides and surrogates continued that theme yesterday, accusing Obama of what Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) called "a complete inability to acknowledge that the surge worked."
But the Iraqi government's newly stated position on troop withdrawals has put the McCain campaign -- and many congressional Republicans who have been on record opposing timelines -- in a difficult position.
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign policy adviser, told reporters on a campaign conference call that the senator would gauge the proper level of U.S. troops in Iraq according to security conditions on the ground and the advice of U.S. military commanders. He made no mention of the views of Iraq's elected government.
But Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a reliable opponent of withdrawal timelines, was not as dismissive. "If we're going to crow about the fact that 12 million [Iraqis] voted and elected their own leadership, we have to pay attention to their leadership," he said. "We can't have it both ways. We should say we're heading for the door."
Some Republicans questioned the value of anything Maliki said, recalling that even senior Democrats last summer labeled him an inept leader and called for his ouster. "I find it interesting that Prime Minister Maliki is now the person to go to," said Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), the second-ranking Republican in the House.
Others insisted that Maliki's statements were designed for domestic consumption in Iraq -- which has scheduled provincial elections for December -- and did not reflect his government's true feelings. In private, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Iraqi leaders continue to tell U.S. officials that they want and need U.S. forces to stay. But Davis admitted that because of Maliki's comments, "there are some members who feel, because of what is happening out there, a little hung out to dry."
In the Democratic primary campaign, Obama frequently noted that he had opposed the Iraq war before it began and criticized McCain's support of the 2003 invasion. But yesterday he largely ignored the question of whether he was against last year's troop buildup, except to say that "we don't know what would have happened" if his plan to begin a phased withdrawal last year had been implemented.
Although the White House has tended to describe the "surge" as the decisive factor in the sharp decline in violence in Iraq, others -- including many in the U.S. intelligence community and the military -- have said the drop was the combined result of a Shiite militia cease-fire and the rejection of al-Qaeda-allied insurgents by Sunni tribal leaders, as well as the deployment of more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
Obama referred to a withdrawal timeline as something now largely agreed upon by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments, saying he welcomes "the growing consensus."
He was effusive in his praise of U.S. troops and diplomats, describing the "terrific" conversation he had with Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, who took him on a helicopter tour over the Iraqi capital. Obama said he understands that Petraeus would prefer leaving his options open rather than operating with a timeline, and said if he were in Petraeus's shoes, "I'd probably feel the same way."
But in an indirect dig at President Bush, who has repeatedly said he would base any withdrawal decisions on the advice of military commanders, Obama said his job would be to listen to the military but make decisions based on "a range of factors that I have to take into account as a commander in chief."
Those factors, he said, would include "the perceptions of the Iraqi people" and the statements of their leaders, as well as "the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan," which he called the "central front in the war against terrorism."
McCain's judgments are based on "what he thinks makes the most sense," Obama said. But his own judgments, "in speaking with Afghans and Iraqis, the U.S. military and civilians," he said, led him to conclude that there is a need to "seize this moment to make America more secure" by focusing on "broader challenges."
Chief among them, he said, are the "need to refocus attention on Afghanistan and to go after the Taliban, including putting more troops on the ground, and to put more pressure on Pakistan to deal with the safe havens of terrorists."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, in an interview last night with PBS's "NewsHour," said he shares Obama's assessment that the situation in Afghanistan is "precarious and urgent." The 10,000 additional troops needed there, he said, would not be available "in any significant manner" unless there are withdrawals from Iraq.
For now, he said, "my priorities . . . given to me by the commander in chief are: Focus on Iraq first. It's been that way for some time. Focus on Afghanistan second."