Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Final Flip-Flop: Obama May "Refine" His Iraq Withdrawal Plan

From "That's the headline over at The Caucus, where Jeff Zeleny reports Barack Obama dropped a not so subtle hint today in North Dakota that his fixed, 16-month timetable for pulling US troops out of Iraq beginning in January 2009 may in fact not be so fixed:

"I've always said that 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," he said. "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." [snip]
"My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything that I've said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe," he said. "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. My guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable."

He added, "I'm going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold."

This may not be a flip-flop by the technical definition of the term, but it certainly is a substantial walk back on perhaps the defining issue of the election that will draw fire from both the right and the left.

Indeed, the RNC has already reacted with a statement from Alex Conant:

"There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience. Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician."
Nothing yet from the progressives in the blogosphere, but rest assured there will a great gnashing of teeth.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer's new column, which will appear in tomorrow's paper, is more prescient than even he realized:

In last week's column, I thought I had thoroughly chronicled Obama's brazen reversals of position and abandonment of principles -- on public financing of campaigns, on NAFTA, on telecom immunity for post-9/11 wiretaps, on unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad -- as he moved to the center for the general election campaign. I misjudged him. He was just getting started. [snip]
Obama's seasonally adjusted principles are beginning to pile up: NAFTA, campaign finance reform, warrantless wiretaps, flag pins, gun control. What's left?

Iraq. The reversal is coming, and soon.

Two weeks ago, I predicted that by Election Day Obama will have erased all meaningful differences with McCain on withdrawal from Iraq. I underestimated Obama's cynicism. I suspect he will make the move much sooner -- using his upcoming Iraq trip to finally acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and formally abandon his primary-season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops.

The shift has already begun. Last Friday, he said: "It's time to be in a responsible, gradual withdrawal from Iraq." The next step is clear: simply define "responsible, gradual" as meaning "flexible." It won't be hard. Obama will say he remains pledged to a withdrawal, that the 16-month time frame remains his goal, but that as president he will necessarily take into account the situation on the ground and the recommendation of his generals in deciding whether the withdrawal is to occur later or even sooner.

Done. And with that, the Obama of the primaries, the Obama with last year's most liberal voting record in the Senate, will have disappeared into the collective memory hole.

UPDATE: Mike Allen has more from David Axelrod on Wolf Blitzer's show this afternoon:

David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, went even further during remarks Wednesday on CNN's "Situation Room," telling guest host John Roberts that Obama has actually advocated "a phased withdrawal, with benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet, that called for strategic pauses, based on the progress on these benchmarks, and advice on the commanders on the ground."
"He's always said that he would listen to the advice of commanders on the ground, that that would factor into his thinking," Axelrod said. "He's also always said that we had to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. So he's been very consistent on this point...

"I think he will take the advice, not just the advice of the commanders on the ground, but his general assessment of conditions on the ground in calibrating that withdrawal. He said he thought we could get one to two brigades out a month. But he's not wedded to that in the face of events. No president would be. And he's always said that he's never said that this withdrawal would be without any possibility of alteration based on events on the ground. That would not be a prudent thing to do for any president.รข€

The phrase "he's not wedded to that in the face of events" would seem to be a direct contradiction to Claire McCaskill's comment the other day.

UPDATE II: Obama held a second "hastily" arranged press conference to clarify his previous answer in which he stated that he is still committed to withdrawing one or two brigades a month upon taking office. Bascially, he made a complete hash of things this evening heading into the holiday weekend. We'll see if it matters at all in the end."