Blurring the lines on Iraq

Republicans are attacking Barack Obama on the war, claiming he's flip-flopped, but that allegation doesn't hold water.

Published July 7, 2008 6:38PM (EDT)

A big topic in the political news today is the full-court-press effort by the McCain campaign to charge that Barack Obama has "flip-flopped" on Iraq. Indeed, it's being reinforced by elements of the MSM.

The substance, such as it is, of the charge is Obama's comment on Friday that conditions on the ground in Iraq would influence the precise pace of troop withdrawals, within the parameters of a general commitment to initiate withdrawals immediately and end the U.S. combat mission within 16 months.

The claim that this is some sort of new, general-election-oriented position on Iraq requires a pretty willful blindness to the Iraq debate that took place during the Democratic nominating contest, during which Obama invariably said the U.S. had to be "as careful about getting out of Iraq as we were careless in getting in." He also resisted a lot of pressure to follow Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd -- and to some extent John Edwards -- in ruling out a significant "residual" troop commitments to Iraq, in a debate that enlivened the progressive blogosphere from the very beginning of the campaign, and helped prevent Obama from becoming the early netroots/antiwar favorite.

It's hard to say exactly what the McCainiacs are trying to accomplish here, other than simply toting up another alleged Obama "flip-flop" as part of an overall effort to depict him as just another Washington pol. Even if Obama does start treating the 16-month withdrawal timetable as marginally flexible, it would hardly represent a "blurring of the lines" on Iraq, since one candidate opposed the war and unambiguously favors its termination (however "carefully"), while the other candidate supported the war, still says it was a great idea, and refuses to accept any end to the combat mission until "victory" is achieved. More generally, even the friendliest interpretation of McCain's famous "100 year commitment" remark (video below) underscores the fact that he believes Iraq is the central theater of an apocalytpic "war on terror," while Obama has consistently viewed it as a sideshow that distracts attention and resources from more important national security challenges elsewhere.

The real irony here is that conservatives have been saying for months now that Democrats, including Obama, are refusing to look at the facts on the ground in Iraq out of sheer ideological rigidity. They might have a less self-contradictory argument if they claimed Obama was moving towards McCain's own position, though that might require them to acknowledge the two candidates are miles apart, with a stable majority of the American people looking at McCain's promise of "victory" from a great distance.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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