Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) issued a challenge to Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) in May to visit Iraq in order to see the conditions on the ground and the "progress" that has been made by the troop "surge" that has been in effect since last summer. McCain may regret his words.
Obama is in the midst of a tour of the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a Congressional delegation. The focus of the trip has centered on his proposal to bring U.S. troops home as soon as 16 months after taking office as the president, and he received an unexpected endorsement of his position from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In an interview with
on Saturday, al-Maliki said of Obama's plan: "That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of changes." An Iraqi spokesman for al-Maliki attempted to back away from the statement, claiming it had been mistranslated. The spokesman's comment was released by U.S. Central Command (CentCom).
stood by its translation from the interview. Al-Maliki's new comments echo statements he made last week in Abu Dabi to Arab ambassadors.
The political climate in Iraq has complicated matters. Many of the Shi'ite factions have pushed for a U.S. troop withdrawal, including the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Elections are supposed to take place in Iraq this fall, although
reports from The Associated Press
indicate that the election authority has delayed the process yet again. The authority has suggested a date of Dec. 22. Objections have arisen from both the Kurds and the Sunnis, with both groups expressing concern they would be inadequately represented in the current process.
show consistently that they believe the presence of U.S. troops has made the security situation worse in their country.
Positive talk on troop withdrawal comes as a setback for McCain and a gain for Obama. McCain's campaign must find a way to downplay al-Maliki's comments or lose one of his strongest arguing points in foreign affairs.
McCain finds himself facing a double-edged argument. He has long held that the "surge" has improved the security conditions in Iraq and should eventually lead to a stable democracy in the country -- possibly setting an example for the region as a whole.
What happens if the Iraqi people do hold elections and a new government decides the U.S. should withdraw, as seems a very strong possibility?
McCain has recognized the U.S. would have to leave if asked. He said as much during a
in 2004 at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama argues that withdrawal would strongly benefit the U.S. and allow for greater investment at home. He has banked on the savings to support portions of his domestic agenda.
The Obama campaign released a memo Monday touting events on the ground support his foreign policy positions, including a refocus of the U.S. on Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda. Spokesman Bill Burton wrote:
"Since then, our overwhelming focus on Iraq has caused us to shortchange Afghanistan. The result is clear. Osama bin Laden is still at large. Al Qaeda has reconstituted a sanctuary along the Pakistani border. The Taliban is on the offensive. June was the highest casualty month of the war. And Obama's judgment was reaffirmed earlier this month, when Admiral Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq."
The McCain campaign assailed Obama's views, in particular suggesting a time table for withdrawal. Randy Scheunemann , a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, also quoted Admiral Mike Mullen:
"Just yesterday, Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a withdrawal driven by dates -- withdrawing all combat troops in two years -- would be 'dangerous.' General Petraeus has made it clear that a withdrawal must be based on security conditions on the ground, on what the enemy is doing and is likely to do or all our gains will be jeopardized."
The foreign policy arguments should continue throughout the week as Obama continues his travels.