Sunday, July 6, 2008

The farrago over Fargo

Like lemmings making a sprint for the ocean, the American press more or less collectively insinuated over the July 4th weekend that Sen. Barack Obama has changed his fundamental position on ending the Iraq war — a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. The fact that nothing could be further from the truth (as even a cursory look at the record would reveal) points to a disturbing rush to judgment on the flimsiest of pretexts.

It all started Thursday in Fargo, N.D., when Obama, responding to reporters’ questions on the airport tarmac, explained his stance on the war. “I continue to believe that it is a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq at a time when the conditions in Afghanistan are worsening, Al Qaeda has been able to establish bases in the areas of northwest Pakistan, resources there are severely ... strained. And we're spending $10 to $12 billion a month in Iraq that we desperately need here at home, not to mention the strains on our military.

“So my position has not changed, but keep in mind what that original position was. I've always said that I would listen to commanders on the ground. I've always said 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. 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.”

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No sooner had he said that then the campaign of challenger Sen. John McCain went into full-throated attack mode. Team McCain was in the first throes of a reinvention. Installing as campaign director the veteran GOP op Steve Schmidt (a man whose physical countenance suggests the prison camp guard from Central Casting), the McCain campaign issued a statement calling Obama’s statement proof of a reversal of his previous stand on bringing American forces home from Iraq.

Team McCain said Obama “has now adopted John McCain's position that we cannot risk the progress we have made in Iraq by beginning to withdraw our troops immediately without concern for conditions on the ground. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind when the facts on the ground dictate it. … Now that Barack Obama has changed course and proven his past positions to be just empty words, we would like to congratulate him for accepting John McCain's principled stand on this critical national security issue.”

A rush of stories followed from online and cable reporters, fixating on the phrase “refine my policies” and adopting the McCain line that Obama had flip-flopped on the war. It got so bad that Obama had to go back to the microphones later in the day. “Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough this morning,” he said, clearly upset by the need to restate his position. “The McCain campaign primed the pump with the press to suggest that somehow we were changing our policy, which we haven’t … that just hasn’t been the case.”

"Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war," he said. “On my first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war responsibly, deliberately but decisively. And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month. And again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time," he said, reiterating a timeline first mentioned last December.

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Obama’s nuanced second-draft statement wasn’t really necessary to anyone who compared what he said Thursday to what he said in the presidential debate on Sept. 26 in Dartmouth, N.H.:

“What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office … I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we’re carrying out counter-terrorism activities … “I believe we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don’t want to make promises not knowing what the situation is going to be three or four years out.”

Some in the press, and Team McCain in general, have criticized Obama for tacking to the political center in the run to the general election. What are they failing to understand about the nature of American presidential politics? Only a political neophyte or an outright fool adopts a position that fails to respond to the shifting exigencies of reality. Obama’s 16-month pledge was never made in a vacuum, but in the context of contemporaneous events. The media’s rush to pile on in Fargo, without a wider grasp of what he said before, is baffling to say the least.

And lost in the sauce of talk about ending the war was Obama’s statement about what to do for the troops who went to fight it. Speaking Thursday at Fargo's Children's Museum at Yunker Farm, Obama called for the nation to improve its services to veterans with better medical and financial assistance for veterans, more funding to help vets buy homes, and ways to enhance the GI Bill — the same GI Bill that Vietnam War veteran McCain was against … until he was for it.

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The bigger challenge on politically handling the Iraq-war issue now falls to McCain. A recent report from the nonpartisan General Accountability Office finds that, by many benchmarks, the U.S. troop escalation referred to as “the surge” has largely succeeded.

From the report: “Overall violence, as measured by enemy-initiated attacks, fell about 70 percent in Iraq, from about 180 attacks per day in June 2007 to about 50 attacks per day in February 2008. Security gains have largely resulted from (1) the increase in U.S. combat forces, (2) the creation of nongovernmental security forces such as Sons of Iraq, and (3) the Mahdi Army’s declaration of a cease fire. Average daily attacks were at higher levels in March and April before declining in May 2008. … The number of trained Iraqi forces has increased from 323,000 in January 2007 to 478,000 in May 2008; many units are leading counterinsurgency operations.”

All of which, ironically enough, is a big political problem for John McCain, an early supporter of the strategy. The apparent success of the “surge” removes one of the main reasons for indefinitely maintaining U.S. troop strength at current levels. McCain, a champion of keeping troops in Iraq whether the “surge” worked or not, is faced with an obvious and inevitable question: If 150,000 American troops can’t come home when things are doing well, when will they be able to return? 100 years, perhaps?

McCain can’t have it both ways forever. In the face of a growing domestic discontent with the war and its cost in blood, treasure and global stature, McCain will be forced to take one side or the other — to adopt a position as clear and relatively unambiguous as the one Barack Obama has had, and repeated, for more than five years.

And for the American press, which on this story apparently left its skepticism in another pair of pants back at the hotel, the question is why so many reporters and columnists ran with the McCain view of events as the unassailable leads of their stories.

It’s been a foundational issue for Obama on the war: “What I do believe is we've got to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” That kind of circumspection and investigation have largely eluded the McCain campaign on matters about the Iraq war. They shouldn’t elude the press.
Image credit: Lemming: Public domain.

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