July 22, 2008
For Obama, a First Step Is Not a Misstep
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government on Monday left little doubt that it favors a withdrawal plan for American combat troops similar to what Senator Barack Obama has proposed, providing Mr. Obama with a potentially powerful political boost on a day he spent in Iraq working to fortify his credibility as a wartime leader.
After a day spent meeting Iraqi leaders and American military commanders, Mr. Obama seemed to have navigated one of the riskiest parts of a weeklong international trip without a noticeable hitch and to have gained a new opportunity to blunt attacks on his national security credentials by his Republican rival in the presidential race, Senator John McCain.
Whether by chance or by design, the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of
Mr. Obama has said he would seek to withdraw American combat forces over 16 months if he is elected president, starting upon taking office in January, meaning his plan would be completed on roughly the same timetable as suggested by the Iraqis. The Bush administration has signaled a willingness to work with the Iraqis on their desire to begin setting at least a general “time horizon” for reducing the American military presence, leaving Mr. McCain at risk of becoming isolated in his position of firm opposition to a withdrawal timetable.
The central tenet of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is suddenly aligned with what the Iraqis themselves now increasingly seem to want. Not only have the developments offered Mr. Obama a measure of credibility as a prospective world leader in a week when his every move is receiving intensive attention at home and abroad, but it has complicated Mr. McCain’s leading argument against him: that a withdrawal timeline would be tantamount to surrender and would leave Iraqis in dangerous straits.
Mr. McCain is hardly conceding the point. He continued to hammer away at Mr. Obama’s judgment on national security, saying on Monday that Mr. Obama had gotten it badly wrong when he opposed sending additional American troops last year to help stabilize
“The fact is, if we had done what Senator Obama wanted to do, we would have lost,” Mr. McCain told reporters in
American military commanders have also expressed qualms about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal, suggesting that to do so could risk reversing the progress made in
For a day, at least, the images of the two presidential candidates offered a sharp contrast. In an interview on “Good Morning America” on ABC, Mr. McCain talked about securing the “Iraq-Pakistan border,” a momentary misstatement of geography. (American forces are pursuing terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border;
During his visit to
“I think it is very important we build on this progress and recognize Iraqi sovereignty,” he said shortly after meeting with Mr. Maliki and as he was starting a meeting with one of
The talk of a strict timetable appeared to worry Mr. Hashimi. Sunni Muslims fear that a rapid withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to Shiite Muslim efforts to further diminish their power. Rather, he said the emphasis should be on the Iraqi army’s readiness.
The comments on troop withdrawal came after a weekend of controversy between the
Mr. Obama, on the latest leg of his first overseas tour as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, arrived in the Iraqi capital in the early afternoon after first stopping in the southern Iraqi city of
Mr. Obama met with Mr. Maliki; President Jalal Talabani; Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser; and other Iraqi officials at the prime minister’s residence in the Green Zone.
In an interview with ABC News on Monday in
He said his conversation with General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker focused on “what’s adequate for our security interests, factoring in the fact that not only do we have Afghanistan, which I believe is the central front on terror, but also the fact that if we’re spending $10 billion a month over the next two, four, five years, then that’s $10 billion a month that we’re not using to rebuild the United States or drawing down our national debt or making sure that families have health care.”
Before meeting with Mr. Hashimi, Mr. Obama said he was “pleased with the progress taking place” and said it was his impression that among Iraqis there was “more optimism about what is happening.”
He spoke of more “activity taking place, the people in the shops, the traffic on the streets” and said, “Clearly, there’s been an enormous improvement.”
Mr. Obama’s trip is cloaked in secrecy and high security, and aides have also worked to avoid images like the one that caused a headache for Mr. McCain in a visit to
Mr. McCain, whose aides are frustrated by the level of attention being paid to Mr. Obama this week, criticized Mr. Obama as not recognizing the reductions in violence and improvements in
“He’s been completely wrong on the issue,” Mr. McCain said, offering a reminder to voters that Mr. Obama is “someone who has no military experience whatsoever.”
That biographical difference, of course, is a central reason for Mr. Obama’s across-the-world detour from the domestic presidential campaign. From