Sunday, July 20, 2008

Obama on tour, McCain on defense

The campaign of Sen. John McCain has worked hard to build a narrative of negative about the daring and wisdom of Sen. Barack Obama’s pledge to return U.S. combat forces in Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

That persistent attempt to cast Obama in the light of a rookie player not ready for the pros — a foreign-policy lightweight ill-equipped to handle affairs of state on a global stage — has taken meaningful hits recently, maybe none as bad as that delivered over the weekend.

While Obama continues his limited world tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, Reuters reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he supported Obama's proposal that U.S. troops exit Iraq within that 16-month timeframe.

“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months,” Maliki said in an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday. “That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”

While cagey enough not to explicitly support Obama over McCain, Maliki said that "[w]hoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."

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“This could be one of those unexpected events that forever changes the way the world perceives an issue,” blogs The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder. “Iraq's Prime Minister agrees with Obama, and there's no wiggle room or fudge factor. This puts John McCain in an extremely precarious spot: what's left to argue? To argue against Maliki would be to predicate that Iraqi sovereignty at this point means nothing.”

“In the U.S., this is all bad news for the McCain campaign,” writes Joe Klein, of Time magaine. “Yes, McCain was right about the Surge, but that is a small, tactical truth too complicated to be understood by most Americans. Maliki Endorses Obama Withdrawal Plan is a headline everyone can understand. ...

“With this happening in the same week that the Bush Administration not only has agreed to sit down with the Iranians but also (and even more significant) is exploring the possibility of establishing a U.S. diplomatic Interests Section in Tehran, another of McCain's foreign policy pillars — the nonrecognition of Iran — seems to be cratering as well.”

This latest hardly-improvised explosive device on the road to the Republican National Convention follows a number of missteps by and surprises for the McCain campaign: McCain’s late-to-the-game pivot on the importance of Afghanistan in the war against terrorism; former economic adviser Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners” comment; the intraparty bombshell of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter, expressing willingness to sign on to an Obama administration as energy czar; McCain’s clueless denunciation of the foundational premise of Social Security; gaffes and goofs by Carly Fiorina, the new face of McCain economic probity.

Today, the McCain campaign finally responded, with what amounts to weak tea and double-talk. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Randy Scheunemann released a statement:

“The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders. John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama. The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed."

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The towering sophistry built in to this statement becomes obvious when you break down the wall of its magisterial construction:

Scheunemann says Obama favors “unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground,” ignoring the fact that many of those “facts on the ground” must be derived from the Iraqi government, not the leaders of a temporary military occupation.

(Never mind the fact that Obama has said repeatedly that his 16-month forecast wasn’t etched in stone or sealed in political amber, but was both a forecast necessarily subject to change based on emerging realities, and a figure he arrived at after consultation with former U.S. military leaders — long before he uttered that estimate in the first place.)

If Maliki repeated “the same view” again today, and his view is consistent with Obama’s own, where’s the short-sightedness and lack of judgment Team McCain alleges Obama is guilty of?

The real truth of the McCain campaign’s remaining options may well have come from outside the campaign, in an e-moment of remarkable candor. The Atlantic’s Ambinder reports having received the following:

“Via e-mail, a prominent Republican strategist who occasionally provides advice to the McCain campaign said, simply, ‘We’re fucked.’”

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Meanwhile, the Obama Tour continues, likely to rival the reception for a major rock band like U2 or the Rolling Stones. The New York Times today reported the location for his appearance in German on Thursday: at Tiergarten Park in Berlin, at the feet of the Victory Column, aka Der Siegessäule. (Pop-culture ref: it’s the same location where angels gathered in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” starring the indelible Solveig Dommartin.)

According to Team Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee will “give a major speech on the historic U.S.-German partnership, and the need to strengthen Transatlantic relations to meet 21st century challenges.”

The Times reported that Berlin officials were having a hard time trying to gauge the size of the expected crowd. One local newspaper, Tagesspiegel quoted one as predicting “between 10,000 and a million.”

There’d been talk that Obama would speak at the Brandenburg Gate, arousing unwarranted comparisons to Kennedy and Reagan, who made addresses at the historic Gate.

But Phil, posting Sunday to the NYTimes Web site, grasped the deeper reality, the deeper contrasts between Obama and McCain:

“In the end it won’t matter where Obama gives his speech in Germany, because whether or not he’s standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessäule, or suspended from the top of the Reichstag, the most startling thing about his speech and trip isn’t going to be the backdrop but rather the huge, international support he already has.

“Remember when the US had foreign policies that didn’t make you embarrassed to be an American while traveling? Clearly the rest of the world is ready for a sharp change from the past 8 years as well.”
Image credits: Obama: Ari Levinson (Autumnfire). Victory Column: djmutex. Both republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

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