MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Barack Obama hasn't visited Iraq in more than two years; John McCain, who travels frequently to Iraq, says that two-year gap shows Obama is out of touch with conditions on the ground. The Democratic nominee plans to visit Iraq soon, but it's not likely to quiet the sharp disagreement between the two contenders. The two men are at odds over the long and costly war.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports now.
COREY FLINTOFF: The candidates argue about two main themes: who's 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 earlier this week.
(Soundbite of political speech)
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I opposed going to war in Iraq. 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.
FLINTOFF: 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. He called for the so-called surge that began 18 months ago to increase troop levels in Iraq in an effort to restore security.
(Soundbite of political speech)
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Sen. Obama disagreed. He opposed the surge, predicted it would increase sectarian violence, and called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible.
FLINTOFF: 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. Beyond staking out their places in the history of the Iraq war, the candidates differ sharply on what should be done now.
Sen. Obama says, as president, he would stick to a timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq.
Sen. OBAMA: I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months.
FLINTOFF: Obama says a firm timetable is needed to press the Iraqi government to make progress in reconciling the country's sectarian factions and standing up 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.
Sen. McCAIN: Before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time. In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around — first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy.
FLINTOFF: Obama said early in July that he might refine his positions on Iraq after consulting with military commanders, but he swiftly followed up with a second statement reaffirming that he saw no reason to change his timetable for removing troops.
Obama's adherence to his 16-month withdrawal has stirred criticism from analysts such as Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. O'Hanlon has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war, but a strong proponent of the surge. He says Obama is playing to his political base.
Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institute): The politics appear to be that he's taking grief from the left. The last thing they want to see is any play, whatsoever, in his position on Iraq policy. So he is choosing consistency over open-mindedness.
FLINTOFF: 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. He says many of McCain's judgments of a year and a half ago have been validated by events today.
Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): But suppose you had a major conflict between the Kurds and Arabs? Suppose you saw yet another revival of near-civil war that took place between Shiite and Sunni? Would Senator McCain then stay regardless of the course of events?
FLINTOFF: 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.
Dr. CORDESMAN: I think that what we really have to hope for in a president is that whoever we elect responds to reality and not ideology or to campaign promises.
FLINTOFF: 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.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: And a bit of news from the McCain campaign today, Phil Graham has stepped down from his role as co-chair of the campaign. Last week, the former senator from Texas came under attack for comments he made saying the U.S. had become a, quote, "nation of whiners," and he said that we're in a mental recession as opposed to a real one. Senator McCain quickly distanced himself from the comments telling reporters, Phil Graham does not speak for me, I speak for me.
In his statement today, Phil Graham said he was stepping aside in order to end the distraction and to get on with the real debate.
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