Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
John McCain says the status of troops in Iraq should be dictated by the situation on the ground.
John McCain says the status of troops in Iraq should be dictated by the situation on the ground. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Barack Obama wants to see troops pulled from Iraq within his first 16 months in office.
Barack Obama wants to see troops pulled from Iraq within his first 16 months in office. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
McCain and Obama differ widely on their positions on the Iraq war. McCain, a veteran, has sharply criticized Obama's lack of military experience. Meanwhile, Obama has highlighted what he says are the failures of a long and costly war.
McCain: Steadfastly opposes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, though he has suggested that troop levels could be reduced to half their current levels by the end of his first term, if conditions on the ground warrant it. McCain was also a strong supporter of the so-called troop surge, which began 18 months ago in an effort to stem the violence in Iraq.
Obama: Is on the record as opposing the war in Iraq, and he has a 16-month plan for troop withdrawal and ending the war. Obama says a firm timetable for Iraq is necessary to press the Iraqi government to make progress in the development of security forces and the reconciliation of sectarian factions.
Before Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama embarked on a round of foreign travel in July, he and his Republican rival, John McCain, exchanged a volley of charges related to one of their central foreign policy disputes: the war in Iraq.
Sen. Obama's itinerary included a not-so-secret visit to Iraq, the first by the Democratic candidate in more than two years. Among other things, it's an effort to counter Republican charges that Obama has been unwilling to consult with U.S. officials and military commanders in the field. McCain's campaign likes to point out that McCain has logged eight trips to Iraq.
The latest skirmishes reflect the overall tone of the two campaigns' battle over policy on the war: McCain's emphasis on his experience and engagement in Iraq, versus Obama's contention that Iraq has been a disastrous distraction from the real war on terror.
The candidates and their foreign policy surrogates argue about two main themes: who has been right about the Iraq war in the past, and who has the best strategy going forward.
Obama never misses an opportunity to point out that he was against the war in Iraq, as he did in a foreign policy speech on July 15.
"I opposed going to war in Iraq," Obama said. "Sen. McCain was one of Washington's biggest supporters for the war. I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Sen. McCain claimed that we would be greeted as liberators, and that democracy would spread across the Middle East".
That's an important item for Obama to keep on the record in an atmosphere where most Americans now say they think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.
On the same day that Obama delivered that address, McCain gave a speech asserting that he was right about a critical strategy in the war: the so-called "surge," which began 18 months ago to increase troop levels in Iraq in an effort to restore security.
"I called for a comprehensive new strategy — a surge of troops and counterinsurgency to win the war," McCain said. "Sen. Obama disagreed. He opposed the surge, predicted it would increase sectarian violence and called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible."
The decrease in violence that accompanied the surge is important to voters who say the U.S. has an obligation to improve security in Iraq before withdrawing.
Even as they seek to stake out their places in the history of the Iraq war, the candidates also differ sharply on what should be done now.
Sen. Obama says that as president, he would stick to a timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. He says a firm timetable is needed to press the Iraqi government to make progress in reconciling the country's sectarian factions and standing up to its own security forces.
McCain has rejected any timeline for withdrawal, but he has suggested that, if conditions warrant, U.S. troop levels could be reduced by more than half by the end of his first term in office.
McCain has also ridiculed Obama for setting out his timetable before talking with U.S. commanders, diplomats and foreign leaders.
"In my experience," McCain said, "fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around — first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
Earlier in July, Obama said he might "refine" his positions on Iraq, but he swiftly came out with a second statement assuring supporters that he didn't mean that he was giving up his timetable. Obama's adherence to his 16-month withdrawal plan has stirred criticism from analysts such as Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war, but he was a strong proponent of the surge. He says Obama's reasons for sticking to the timetable are political, not strategic.
"He's taking grief from the left," O'Hanlon says, "and from those who want him to be an authentic, consistent politician — who's already reversed his position on wiretapping and a couple of other issues — and the last thing they want to see is any play, whatsoever, in his position on Iraq policy. So he's choosing consistency over open-mindedness."
But Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says McCain could also be bedeviled by the need to appear politically consistent when the realities of Iraq demand flexibility.
"A lot of the judgments that Sen. McCain made a year ago have been validated by events to date," Cordesman says. "But suppose you had a major conflict between the Kurds and Arabs? Suppose you saw yet another revival of the near-civil war that took place between Shiite and Sunni? Would Sen. McCain then stay, regardless of the course of events?"
Cordesman notes that while candidates have to fend off accusations of flip-flopping or being too rigid on policy, presidents have to act according to whatever real-life situations confront them.
"I think that what we really have to hope for in a president," Cordesman says, "is that whoever we elect responds to reality and not ideology, or to campaign promises."
There already are indications that the candidates' war-policy battleground is shifting: The two senators devoted as much or more time this week to discussing strategy in Afghanistan, where violence has been on the rise lately, than they did to Iraq.