As he prepares for an extensive trip overseas, Barack Obama delivered a sweeping foreign policy address Tuesday in which he sought to reassure his supporters that he remains committed to ending the war in Iraq.
Obama, who has been trying to counter perceptions that he has softened his position since he locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, said the nation’s future hinged on reorienting its national security priorities so that Iraq is no longer the central thrust of the U.S. military.
“I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war,” the Illinois senator said, speaking to more than 600 people at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, against a backdrop of eight American flags. “Let me be clear: We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months.”
As the Iraq war winds down, Obama said, he wants to see troops redirected to Afghanistan. He said the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a war “we have to win” and repeated his call for two more combat brigades in Afghanistan to counteract “deteriorating” conditions.
John McCain, Obama’s rival, upped the ante Tuesday, pledging three more brigades as part of a broader plan to “turn around the war.” It is the first time the Arizona senator has been specific, but he has previously called for an increase in NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan has recently turned more deadly than the one in Iraq. On Sunday, nine American soldiers were killed in a brazen insurgent attack on an outpost, the largest number of U.S. deaths in a single incident in Afghanistan since June 2005.
McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, chided Obama on Tuesday for outlining an Iraq strategy based on limited firsthand knowledge of the region. He questioned why Obama would lay out concrete plans before visiting the region and meeting with military officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Obama is to leave soon on a trip that will take him to the Middle East and Europe. He is also expected to visit Iraq and possibly Afghanistan.
At a town hall meeting in Albuquerque, McCain said: “I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to Gen. 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.”
Obama delivered his speech at a moment when there is some confusion about his position on the war. Of late, he has given more emphasis to caveats that might impede a withdrawal of U.S. forces than on his pledge to remove troops.
Obama insists his views are unchanged. But his subtle shift in tone has sparked concerns among supporters that he is revising his position as part of a broader post-primary move to the political center.
A recent Newsweek poll showed that 53% of voters believed that Obama had changed position on important issues “in order to gain political advantage.”
In his 37-minute address, Obama said he was still determined to end the war according to his declared timetable. And he noted that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s recent “call for a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces presents a real opportunity.”
Bringing troops home, Obama said, is essential to achieving other goals he has deemed important: defeating Al Qaeda, rebuilding alliances and weaning the U.S. off foreign oil.
“This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize,” he said. “This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.”
Obama’s speech had another purpose. As a relative newcomer to national politics, he wants to signal that he would be no pushover on the world stage. He has work to do on this front. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 72% of Americans believe McCain would make a good commander in chief, but only 48% believe Obama would measure up.
Obama invoked a series of tough-minded foreign policy realists -- including the late George F. Kennan, architect of the Cold War containment strategy -- to reassure doubters that he would protect U.S. interests abroad.
Many of the points Obama made reflect the Washington establishment’s foreign policy consensus. When he said the greatest threat to U.S. security lay in the tribal regions of Pakistan -- “where terrorists train” -- he was articulating a widely accepted doctrine. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said much the same thing.
“As president, I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy -- one that recognizes that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin,” Obama said.
Advisors to Obama said he was talking more about national security and foreign policy as part of the groundwork for his upcoming trip. It will be Obama’s first overseas venture since he entered the presidential race in February 2007. He is to make stops in Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, Germany, France and Britain.
Timing and details of the Iraq visit have been kept secret for safety reasons.
President Bush, asked at a news conference Tuesday about Obama’s trip, advised him to “listen carefully” to Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“There’s a temptation to let the politics at home get in the way with the considered judgment of the commanders,” he said. “That’s why I strongly reject an artificial timeline of withdrawal.”
McCain, too, said a hard 16-month timetable invited failure. He predicted that pulling out troops on that schedule would have devastating consequences for the conflict in Afghanistan.
Aboard his campaign bus, he told reporters: “If we fail in Iraq, it would have meant enormous encouragement to the Taliban in Afghanistan and other anti-American elements and jihadists throughout the region.
“In life and warfare, failure breeds failure, success breeds success. That is just a lesson of history, and Sen. Obama obviously does not understand those lessons.”
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Harking back to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-ravaged Europe, Barack Obama called for the United States to develop “a new security strategy for an ever-changing world.” He promised, as president, to focus on five security goals:
End the war in Iraq
Obama said he would remove combat brigades by summer 2010, and keep only a residual force to target Al Qaeda, protect U.S. service members and diplomats, and train and support Iraq’s troops.
Defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban
He said he would send at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan and boost nonmilitary assistance by $1 billion a year. Obama called for more troops and equipment in Pakistan’s Afghan border region that has become an Al Qaeda haven, and said he wanted to triple nonmilitary aid there for a decade.
Secure nuclear weapons and materials
Obama said he would work to take U.S. and Russian missiles off hair-trigger alert and seek worldwide bans on the production of fissile nuclear material and intermediate-range missiles. On Iran, he promised to employ direct diplomacy without preconditions to persuade it to halt its nuclear program.
Achieve energy security
He said he would invest $150 billion over a decade in alternative energy sources and in technologies to make coal clean and nuclear power safe, and create an alliance of oil-importing nations to reduce our demand and carbon emissions.
Obama called for deeper partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and India; more engagement with China; a stronger NATO; a reformed United Nations; more-concerted involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; a new alliance to defeat terrorist networks; and a doubling of foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012.
Source: Los Angeles Times