Opinion: Is Barack Obama softening his Iraq withdrawal time line?


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Our colleague Peter Nicholas, trailing along after Barack Obama in Fargo, N.D., reports that Obama seemed just now to signal a softened position on his time line for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

UPDATE: Obama held a second press conference to say he is still committed to 16 months.


On the campaign website, Obama says he would ‘immediately’ begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and would have ‘all of our combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.’ But at a news conference, he was asked about concerns by some that he was backing off on that timetable.

Obama responded that he is planning a trip to Iraq to do ‘a thorough assessment’ and consult with ‘commanders on the ground.’ Key, he said, is to not jeopardize U.S. national security interests. But he did not say that he was still committed to the 16-month timetable, and he has previously seemed to give himself a little wiggle room on the time line.

This is Obama’s full response:

‘These critics haven’t based their comments on anything I’ve said or anything my campaign has said. It’s pure speculation. We’re planning to visit Iraq. I’m going to do a thorough assessment when I’m there. I have been consistent throughout this process that I believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, that we need to bring this war to a responsible end.

‘I continue to believe that it is a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq at a time when the conditions in Afghanistan are worsening, Al Qaeda has been able to establish bases in the areas of northwest Pakistan, resources there are severely ...

... strained, and we’re spending $10 to $12 billion a month in Iraq that we desperately need here at home, not to mention the strains on our military.

‘So my position has not changed, but keep in mind what that original position was. I’ve always said that I would listen to commanders on the ground. I’ve always said 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. 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.’


To a second question on Iraq, he added:

‘We can chase this around for a long time. What I’ve said repeatedly is that my goal is to end this conflict in a responsible way as quickly as possible. My 16-month time line, if you examine everything that I’ve said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe. 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. And my guiding approach continues to be that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.

‘And I’m going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold. My job is to make sure that the strategic issues that we face, not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, in Iran and Pakistan are all taken into account and dealt with in a way that enhances America’s national security interests over the long-term.’

UPDATE: McCain spokesman Brian Rogers says that Obama ‘has now adopted John McCain’s position that we cannot risk the progress we have made in Iraq by beginning to withdraw our troops immediately without concern for conditions on the ground. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind when the facts on the ground dictate it. Indeed, the facts have changed because of the success of the surge that John McCain advocated for years and Barack Obama opposed in a position that put politics ahead of country.

‘Now that Barack Obama has changed course and proven his past positions to be just empty words, we would like to congratulate him for accepting John McCain’s principled stand on this critical national security issue. If he had visited Iraq sooner or actually had a one-on-one meeting with General Petraeus, he would have changed his position long ago.’

-- Scott Martelle