In his first public appearance after his whirlwind overseas trip, Sen. Barack Obama on Sunday praised U.S. troops for reducing violence in Iraq, warned of worsening conditions in Afghanistan and said other nations were eager to see the United States work with them on mutual issues.
It is crucial, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said, “that we project ourselves on the world stage with a sense of humility and a sense that we are listening. . . . We are very clear about our own interests, but not so clear about other people’s interests.”
The Illinois senator’s remarks came at the close of the Unity ’08 Convention, sponsored by a coalition of African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American journalism groups. His Republican counterpart, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was also invited to speak but declined, citing schedule conflicts.
Obama said Europeans were “hungry . . . for American leadership that’s not a matter of unilateral action, but a matter of engaging countries and peoples all around the world around our common challenges but also our common opportunities.”
“When you think of the big problems that we face here at home, they are connected to the problems we face abroad,” he said. “If we can get more support [from other countries] for actions in Afghanistan, those are fewer troops in the United States that we have to send or it’s less money that we have to invest in those efforts, which frees up money for us to invest in keeping folks in their homes here.”
Obama reiterated that he would have voted against the troop “surge” in Iraq even knowing that many, including McCain, credited it with the recent reduction in violence. “It is fascinating to me to hear you guys reemphasize this over and over again,” he said. “I have not heard yet somebody ask John McCain whether his vote to go into Iraq was a mistake.”
Earlier Sunday, in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama acknowledged that he had failed to anticipate the sharp decline in attacks in Iraq, but he contended that President Bush and McCain had made the same mistake.
Meanwhile, McCain insisted in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that he had not shifted his position against setting a date for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq, despite comments he made Friday that the 16-month withdrawal plan espoused by Iraq’s prime minister was “a pretty good timetable.”
Addressing what has become one of his most difficult campaign issues, Obama said that the violence had “gone down more than any of us have anticipated, including President Bush and John McCain.”
Yet he said the decline was brought about not just by the U.S. troop increase but by a combination of factors, including Iraqi Sunnis’ decision to turn against the Al Qaeda members in their midst.
“To try to single out a single factor in a messy situation is not accurate,” he said, also emphasizing that U.S. combat forces had made “an enormous difference.”
Obama also sought to rebut charges that his speech in Berlin, to an enthusiastic crowd estimated at more than 200,000 people, was largely free of substance or any specifics that would displease his audience.
He pointed out that he had called on Germany to do more in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had decried the reflexive anti-Americanism in Europe.
“That wasn’t an applause line in Germany,” he said.
Obama, who has often faulted the Bush administration for failing to mobilize a full effort for Middle East peace until 2007, praised the Bush team for its efforts since last fall toward creation of a Palestinian state.
He said that the administration had “moved the ball forward” since last fall, though it may leave an unfinished job that the next president will have to “move quickly” to complete. He said the next president would also need to move quickly to deal with the threat from Iran’s nuclear program.
McCain’s comments on the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq were prompted by comments in a CNN interview Friday in which he had been asked to explain why Prime Minister Nouri Maliki generally supported the 16-month timetable endorsed by Obama.
Maliki “said it’s a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground,” McCain said in the Friday interview, before adding, “I think it’s a pretty good timetable.”
Obama’s campaign hailed the comment as a sign that McCain, like Maliki, was moving toward the Democrat’s position -- even though McCain immediately appeared to modify his remark, referring to “horizons for withdrawal” instead of a timetable, and saying that a decision would “have to based on conditions on the ground.”
McCain insisted on the ABC program Sunday that he would be flexible about the timing of a troop withdrawal as long as it was justified by improved conditions in Iraq.
“I like six months, three months, two months. I like yesterday. I like yesterday, OK? That seems really good to me. But the fact is, the conditions on the ground have not dictated it,” he said.
McCain said he was not questioning Obama’s patriotism last week when he charged that the Democrat had been willing to lose the war if it helped him with the political campaign.
“I’m not questioning his patriotism. I’m questioning his actions,” McCain said. “All I’m saying is, he does not understand. . . . He made the decision that was political in order to help him win the nomination of his party.”
McCain strongly defended his original support for the war, which has become another key point of contention between the two.
As had been predicted in 2003, “we were greeted as liberators,” he said. He added, though, that the Bush administration mishandled the war “in a way that was so harmful that I stood up against it.”
Richter reported from Washington and Mitchell from Chicago.