Bush vs. Obama

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 28, 2008; 1:52 PM

President Bush today defended his unpopular war in Iraq, accusing Democratic leaders of being in denial about progress there and even going so far as to imply that Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama is naive about the terrorist threat in that country.

"It seems that no matter what happens in Iraq, opponents of the war have one answer: retreat," Bush said at a press conference this morning. "When things were going badly in Iraq a year ago, they called for withdrawal. Then we changed our strategy, launched the surge, and turned the situation around. . . .

"In the face of these changes on the ground, congressional leaders are still sounding the same old call for withdrawal. I guess you could say that when it comes to pushing for withdrawal, their strategy is to stay the course.

"It's interesting that many of the same people who once accused me of refusing to acknowledge setbacks in Iraq now are the ones who are refusing to acknowledge progress in Iraq."

Obama entered the picture when reporters asked Bush about a recent comment by the Illinois senator that presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain yesterday tried to turn into political fodder.

Some background: Responding to a hypothetical question from NBC anchor Tim Russert at Tuesday night's Democratic debate, Obama said that he would reserve the right to return to Iraq after withdrawing troops "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq."

As Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray write in today's Washington Post, McCain told supporters at a rally yesterday: "I have some news. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. . . . My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. . . they would be taking a country."

Obama then responded: "McCain thought that he could make a clever point by saying, 'Well let me give you some news, Barack, al-Qaeda is in Iraq.' Like I wasn't reading the papers, like I didn't know what was going on. I said, 'Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq; that's why I've said we should continue to strike al-Qaeda targets. I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

As Shear and Murray point out: "The Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq was formed in response to the U.S. presence in Iraq. The U.S. military thinks that the group's activities -- such as large-scale car bombings of Shiite gathering places -- peaked in 2006 and that American forces destroyed much of the organization in a series of raids last year."

ABC's Jon Karl was the first to ask Bush to respond to Obama's partial quote.

"It's an interesting comment, 'If Al Qaeda is securing an Al Qaeda base?'" Bush repeated back.

"Yes, well, that's exactly what they've been trying to do for the past four years. That's -- their stated intention was to create enough chaos and disorder to establish a base from which to either launch attacks or spread a caliphate. . . .

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