After launching their candidacies with opposite positions on the Iraq war, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama seem to be edging toward a middle ground between them.
McCain has long denounced timetables for withdrawal, but said for the first time Thursday that he would like to see most U.S. troops out of Iraq by a specific date: 2013.
Obama has emphasized his plan to withdraw all combat brigades within 16 months of taking office, but also has carefully hedged, leaving the option of taking more time -- and leaving more troops -- if events require.
The positioning is noteworthy because McCain and Obama have made Iraq war policy a core element of their campaigns. But McCain has bowed to the political reality that American impatience with the war is growing, and Obama to the fact that a poorly executed exit would risk damage to other vital U.S. interests.
“It’s one thing to stake out a relatively uncompromising position early in the presidential process,” said Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “But when the idea that you might move into the Oval Office hits you squarely between the eyes, it reminds you that there’s a time to be pragmatic about these things.”
The maneuvering also reflects the increasingly difficult politics of the Iraq war as the country heads into a general presidential campaign in which the candidates must broaden their appeal for votes. In a debate, the clearest differences between McCain and Obama on Iraq would be their prewar positions: McCain was in favor, Obama opposed. Somewhat less clear, however, would be their approach to the Iraq end game.
For McCain, his speech Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, was not the first time he has defined a position in new terms that mark a shift from the more conservative stances he advanced in the GOP primary battle. In a foreign policy address in March, after he became the presumptive Republican nominee, McCain emphasized the limits of U.S. power and the importance of efforts to seek international cooperation.
But Iraq has been a foundation of McCain’s appeal to conservatives, and he has remained a stalwart backer of continued U.S. involvement.
McCain previously has refused to offer anything approaching a schedule for withdrawal, and condemned former rival Mitt Romney earlier in the campaign for proposing what the Arizona senator said was a timetable.
But McCain predicted Thursday that at the end of his first term, the war would be won, Al Qaeda would be defeated and only a small contingent of American troops would remain in Iraq. The remarks set out the conditions he intends to achieve by the end of his first term, he said.
After the speech, McCain denied that he was setting a timetable, saying that the remarks were a promise that “we will succeed in Iraq,” but not a commitment to withdraw troops if the war has not been won.
“I’m not putting a date on it,” he said. “This is what I want to achieve.”
With the general election campaign approaching, McCain faces the challenge of trying to overcome the popular impression -- reinforced in Democratic ads -- that he intends to keep the United States in Iraq for 100 years. McCain says the ads distort a comment he made that he would accept an American deployment in Iraq for 100 years if it followed the pattern of U.S. deployments in Korea or Germany, where there is no fighting.
Republican campaign aides point to poll numbers showing that many Americans are uneasy about leaving Iraq, and about the risk of strengthening violent extremists and the hand of Iran.
Yet poll numbers also show that even supporters of staying in Iraq don’t necessarily want to stay long. One recent poll found that about 1 in 6 Americans who supported a continued Iraq military presence wanted to stay two years or longer.
“It’s probably in McCain’s interest to put that idea of a 100-year stay to bed,” Rothenberg said. “Setting out some sort of time limit short of a century will probably do that.”
But even his new prediction of substantial troop withdrawals by 2013 drew criticism Thursday from Democrats.
“Look at what Sen. McCain is saying: ‘Four more years,’ ” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “That’s not what people usually mean in a presidential year when they say four more years.”
Obama also has modified his positions as a presidential candidate, toughening his stand on normalizing relations with Cuba, for instance, by insisting on democratic reforms.
On Iraq, the senator from Illinois has made it a point in public comments to guard his prerogatives as president. At campaign stops and in interviews, he has regularly emphasized his promise to start bringing home troops as soon as he is elected, and to bring home one or two combat brigades each month, so that the approximately 19 combat brigades are out within 16 months.
Less noticed is his promise that he will listen to military commanders and react to events on the ground -- caveats that give him wide latitude.
Obama says he wants to keep a “follow-on force” in Iraq that would fight terrorists, protect U.S. forces and facilities, and train Iraqi forces. Obama has not provided an estimate of how large that force might be.
In a debate with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on April 16 in Philadelphia, Obama said: “I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I’ve given them a new mission . . . we are going to proceed deliberately, in an orderly fashion, out of Iraq.”
He continued: “If they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration. But ultimately, the buck stops with me as the commander in chief.”
Samantha Power, a former close advisor to Obama, stirred controversy this year by suggesting in two interviews that Obama’s promise to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months was only a “best-case scenario.” Power is the advisor who resigned from the campaign in March after describing Clinton as a “monster.”
Some antiwar activists say they fear that Obama may not be as committed as they are to quickly withdrawing U.S. forces.
Tim Carpenter of Progressive Democrats of America said his group had been working for the Democrat in hopes that he would come around to a stronger conviction about the need to depart Iraq quickly.
“We missed the Obama bandwagon,” he joked.
If Obama turned out to be more cautious, or McCain more moderate, it would come as no surprise to America’s European allies and Arab partners in the region. Diplomats from the countries have said they discount pledges of drastic policy departures as campaign rhetoric.
Many doubt that a new president would risk his term by ordering a withdrawal that could strengthen Iran, distress Israel and cause regional upheaval.
A senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol, predicted recently that there would prove to be little difference in how the candidates acted on Iraq -- or for that matter, on Iran or on policy toward Israel and its Arab neighbors.
“I’m not sure they will have a very different foreign policy at all,” he said.