Barack Obama's comments on Iraq in Fargo, N.D., are drawing quite a bit of attention, but if the news accounts are an accurate reflection of what he said, I'm not sure if there's anything especially unusual about his remarks.
"I've always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed," he said. "And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."
As he arrived for a campaign stop in North Dakota, Mr. Obama told reporters on Thursday that he intended to conduct "a thorough assessment" of his Iraq policy during a forthcoming trip to the country.
"My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything that I've said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe," he said. "I said that based on the information that we had received from our commanders that one to two brigades a month could be pulled out safely, from a logistical perspective. My guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable."
Some are interpreting these comments as either a reversal or evidence of a looming reversal. I don't see it that way. In fact, if you'd told me that these exact same remarks came from Obama in February, I'd believe you.
As the Democratic primary process unfolded, the Clinton campaign tried to get out in front of this issue by saying that she was committed to her withdrawal plan -- no matter what. When Clinton's communications director was pressed on whether Clinton would proceed with a withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground, he said, "Yes."
Obama was never actually willing to make a similar vow and, as far as I can tell, has always given himself some flexibility on troop withdrawal. Nearly four months ago, one of Obama's top foreign policy advisors said Obama is committed to withdrawing "one to two brigades a month," but also to going slower if that pace would threaten the safety of U.S. personnel.
That, in a nutshell, is what Obama said today, too. In fact, Samantha Power argued in March that the next president would have to consider conditions on the ground when implementing a withdrawal plan. For that matter, I've lost count of how many times I've heard Obama say that he wants to be as careful getting out as Bush was reckless going in.
In terms of "refining" his policy, that, too, is consistent with Obama's general approach -- he crafted a withdrawal policy nearly two years ago. Of course it's going to be refined based on changing conditions.
With that in mind, Greg Sargent raises a good point about the context:
These strike me as less a signal of a coming change in his position on withdrawal and more like a combined effort to defuse the charge that he'll withdraw recklessly and to preserve flexibility as commander in chief.
Quite right. The McCain campaign wants desperately to argue that Obama supports an immediate, "precipitous" withdrawal that would disregard conditions and/or the wishes of commanders. Given this, Obama's point is pretty straightforward -- he wants to give the Pentagon a new mission (getting out safely), based on a flexible timetable. Nothing he said today changes that formulation at all. I understand concerns about Obama "moving to the middle," but his remarks in Fargo aren't evidence of a shift.
I should note that Obama's position, of course, stands in stark contrast to the McCain Iraq policy, which is effectively, "Keep doing what we've been doing, hope the war eventually ends, and then hope Iraq won't mind if we stick around for a generation or five."