WASHINGTON - This weekend's surprise endorsement by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki of Senator Barack Obama's call for American combat forces to leave
Iraq by mid-2010 marks a serious setback to Republican Senator John McCain, who
has tried hard to depict his Democratic rival as "naive" on foreign policy,
especially with respect to Iraq.
That Maliki's endorsement in an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine
came on the very eve of Obama's visit to Baghdad has made things even worse for
the McCain camp, which at first echoed the White House in insisting that the
prime minister's remarks had been "misunderstood and mistranslated".
Even McCain's staunchest supporters admitted on Monday that
Maliki's comments constituted what the right-wing National Review magazine
called a "body-blow" to the Republican candidate, who has made Iraq - and what
he claims is the unqualified success of the "surge" strategy in the past year
there - the centerpiece of his efforts to claim the mantle of seasoned foreign
"Maybe McCain shouldn't have been so emphatic" about urging Obama to visit
Iraq, rued the Review's White House correspondent, Byron York. "What if Obama
went to Iraq, decided his position was the correct one, and then, in a major
campaign coup, received what appeared to be the endorsement of the Iraqi prime
minister? And - extra points - made himself look more statesmanlike in the
"Obama arrived in Baghdad early this morning, and all that seems to have
happened," he noted.
For himself, Obama, who met with Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials on
Monday, remained decidedly low key about the turn of events, describing his
talks with Maliki merely as a "wonderful visit" and declining to crow over what
his campaign and political pros back home saw as a major boost.
" ... [I]n the annals of candidate luck, there has scarcely been a more
fortuitous one than the gift handed to Barack Obama by al-Maliki in his
interview," wrote John Podhoretz, the editor of the neo-conservative Commentary
magazine on his blog. "Obama can fairly claim to have staked out a position
acceptable to the legitimate government of Iraq. And with that, McCain's job of
convincing the American people that Obama is a novice who cannot be trusted to
hold power just [became] far more difficult."
In fact, however, Maliki's remarks were just the latest in a series of events
surrounding the so-called "war on terror" where the McCain campaign has
appeared to struggle to catch up to Obama.
While Obama and his chief advisers have for months described Afghanistan and
the Taliban-dominated areas of Pakistan as the "central front in the war on
terror" from which President George W Bush - with McCain's enthusiastic support
- diverted US military and intelligence resources by invading Iraq, the
Republican candidate has, at least until just last week, largely ignored the
fast-deteriorating situation in both countries.
Thus, it was only after Obama gave a major policy address last Wednesday in
which he called for Washington to send at least two more brigades to
Afghanistan and to triple non-military assistance to Pakistan as part of a plan
to contain the Taliban insurgency there that McCain released his own plan which
echoed much of what his Democratic rival had urged.
Two days later, Obama himself was in Afghanistan meeting with President Hamid
Karzai and US troops there to help dramatize his message.
And while McCain and his supporters tried to use the occasion to highlight the
Illinois senator's inexperience by stressing it was only his first trip to the
country, they found it nearly impossible to get their voice heard amid the
unprecedented media coverage that so far has treated Obama on his trip to
Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Western Europe as if he were already
If McCain was seen as late in his understanding of the situation in southwest
Asia, he seems to have virtually missed the boat with respect to the evolution
of Iraqi politics over the past several months, particularly as the Bush
administration intensified its efforts to negotiate the future terms governing
US forces in Iraq after the mandate approved by the UN Security Council expires
at the end of the year.
McCain has long favored a long-term presence, at one time suggesting that the
US military should keep forces there 100 years or more. He has frequently
asserted that South Korea, where Washington has stationed forces for nearly 60
years, would be a good model for Iraq.
In that respect, he has lagged behind even the Bush administration which, as
negotiations over the future of its military forces in Iraq became more
difficult, appeared to become increasingly reconciled to the fact that internal
Iraqi politics made any long-term agreement impossible.
That became abundantly clear last Friday when Bush, who has long rejected a
timetable for withdrawal, agreed in a joint statement with Maliki to setting a
"general time horizon" for reducing US troops from Iraq. Obama's campaign
hailed the new language as a "step in the right direction", while McCain warned
that "an artificial timetable" could prove disastrous.
The next day, however, Der Spiegel published its interview in which Maliki
explicitly endorsed Obama's call for the withdrawal of all US combat troops 16
months from the inauguration of a new president next January. "That, we think,
would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight
changes," he said, adding that "those who operate on the premise of short time
periods in Iraq today are being more realistic".
Both the White House and the McCain campaign were clearly caught off-guard. But
Iraq specialists said they reflected a consensus within his government, if not
the country as a whole.
"It seems to me that there have been enough different statements made by enough
different Iraqi officials to make it pretty clear that this is the new position
of the Iraqi government," said Marc Lynch, an Iraq expert at George Washington
University. He added that Maliki himself "may also understand better what
Obama's position actually is" - specifically that, after combat troops were
withdrawn, the remaining US forces, of which there could be tens of thousands,
could play an "overwatch" role in support of the Iraqi military and security
"I do think they are looking for the US to play a support role," said Colin
Kahl, a military specialist at Georgetown University who has advised Obama.
"This is precisely the role that Senator Obama has proposed ... and the news
out of Iraq probably means they are increasingly comfortable with Senator
If so, that doesn't help McCain who, were it not for Maliki's remarks, was
poised to seize on a weekend interview by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in which he warned that withdrawing all combat
troops within two years from now would be "very dangerous" given the fragility
of the situation in Iraq. Given Maliki's statement and the media hoopla
surrounding Obama's trip, however, his words received little notice.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.