Campaigns' Iraq Stances Seem to Hit a Middle Ground

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

When President Bush announced his plan, in January 2007, to launch a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the initiative the "best possible chance" for success and proposed a Senate resolution supporting it. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called the troop buildup "another tired and failed policy" and introduced a bill opposing it.

Nineteen months later, after violence in Iraq first rose rapidly and then fell even faster, McCain now credits the buildup with bringing victory "within sight" and says Obama should admit he was wrong. Obama, who says the "surge" was only one factor contributing to reduced violence, argues that McCain should admit the mistake of backing the Iraq invasion in the first place.

But even as the two presumptive presidential nominees continue to squabble about the past, their debate over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq seems to have entered a broad new middle ground, in which the question is not whether to withdraw but rather the speed and circumstances of departure.

In recent days, McCain has said he could support withdrawal over 16 months -- the timetable proposed by Obama -- provided "conditions" were right. Obama has said that he would "adapt" his withdrawal timeline should "things drastically worsen as we're drawing down." Both advocate leaving a residual U.S. force in Iraq, although neither has specified the size of such a force or where it would be based.

McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann disputed any suggestion that the two were drawing closer together. "Senator McCain has always said that withdrawal has to be based on conditions on the ground and the judgment of military commanders," Scheunemann said in an interview yesterday. "Obama has explicitly rejected that."

Obama has, indeed, rejected the notion that U.S. military commanders on the ground should make decisions on withdrawal, saying on several occasions during his recent overseas trip that as commander in chief he would consider their advice but would make his own judgment. But on the question of conditions for the timing and pace of withdrawal, Obama insisted in an NBC interview, "there's not as much disagreement there as I think people may perceive."

Several factors have emerged in recent weeks to complicate both candidates' positions on withdrawal. The sustained fall in violence in Iraq has bolstered McCain's contention that the troop buildup succeeded, even as it reinforces Obama's position that a sustained U.S. troop withdrawal should now begin. The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, under domestic pressure to set a timetable for the departure of U.S. forces, has cited the end of 2010 as a reasonable projection. And U.S. public opinion surveys indicate support for Obama's contention that the war was a mistake, along with backing for McCain's "conditions-based" criteria for withdrawal without a fixed target date.

Even when their primary campaigns began early last year and the two candidates seemed furthest apart on the Iraq war, elements of overlap were apparent. In his Senate bill opposing the troop buildup, Obama called for capping troop levels and beginning an immediate withdrawal of combat troops, to be completed by March 2008. But his proposed legislation allowed for a "temporary" suspension of withdrawals if Iraqis met political, economic and security benchmarks set out by Bush, and if Congress agreed a suspension was in the national interest.

McCain's resolution called for ensuring that U.S. military commanders received "the resources they consider necessary to carry out their mission" in Iraq. But it also noted that "no amount of additional U.S. forces can affect the outcome" in the absence of Iraqi political reconciliation. The resolution listed 11 political, economic and security reforms on which the Baghdad government "must show visible progress."

Neither piece of legislation ever reached a vote, although a bill that eventually became law incorporated the benchmarks both candidates advocated.

Each candidate continues to issue sweeping statements about the other's past positions on Iraq that shed little light on what they would do as president. "John McCain's essential focus has been on the tactical issue of sending more troops," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "He's made his entire approach to foreign policy rest on that support of Bush's decision to send more troops in."

"Senator Obama doesn't understand, he doesn't understand what's at stake here," McCain countered on ABC's "This Week." "He chose to take the political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party."

Obama insisted this past January that even as he opposed the troop increase at its inception, he acknowledged that it was likely to bring about diminished violence. "I said at the time," he said in a Democratic primary debate, ". . . if we place 30,000 more troops in there, then we would see an improvement in the security situation and . . . a reduction in the violence."

McCain's campaign claims that Obama never made such an acknowledgment and that he, in fact, said the opposite. The campaign bases that claim on Obama's response to Bush's 2007 speech announcing the troop buildup, in which the Democrat said he was "not persuaded" that it would solve Iraq's sectarian violence. "I think it will do the reverse," Obama said.

Sectarian violence did worsen in the early months of the "surge," although Obama does not now claim that the troop buildup provoked it. By February, he had begun to acknowledge that U.S. troops had played a role in improving conditions. "I think it is indisputable that we've seen violence reduced," he said during a primary debate in Austin. "And that's a credit to our brave men and women in uniform."

But the Obama campaign says that McCain has overstated the contribution of the buildup to improved conditions in Iraq, at the expense of more important factors, such as a Shiite militia cease-fire and the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

McCain begs to differ. Obama "refuses to recognize the fact that it has succeeded, and acknowledge that," McCain said at a town hall meeting Tuesday.

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