Barack Obama launched his foreign trip today, as Americans woke up on this Saturday morning to learn that Obama had landed in Afghanistan. Obama’s choice to travel to that country first is a way for the campaign to make its point that the war in Afghanistan has been overlooked and that it is time for the United States to refocus its national security priorities.
The Obama campaign was mindful of one of the potential downfalls of the coming week, namely that Obama’s high-profile travel makes him look arrogant and acting as if he has already won the presidential nomination. McCain’s spokesperson accused Obama of holding “campaign rally overseas” today. Obama sought to address that by telling reporters that “I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time.”
The second point of debate between the two campaigns concerns the fight over the pragmatism mantle. McCain has long sought to cast Obama as an ideologue who has his ideas set and will not reevaluate them based on what he sees on the ground. Just today, McCain said in a radio address: “Apparently, he’s confident enough that he won’t find any facts that might change his opinion or alter his strategy — remarkable.” Obama sought to also address that issue: “I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking,” he said, and the campaign is not planning any major speeches in Afghanistan and Iraq that might look like Obama is using these countries as a stage for his political ambition.
Democrats are hoping that images do the talking, as Obama’s trip is being covered with great attention in the US - much more, in any case, than McCain’s foreign trip received back in March. That discrepancy must be driving the GOP crazy, but Republicans have known for a while that they would not be able to match Obama’s profile in the media.
The Obama could not have expected that today, they would even benefit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki doing the talking. In what was a huge gift to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Maliki declared today in an interview to German magazine Der Spiegel:
U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes. … Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems.”
These statements are a bombshell thrown in the American political landscape. Maliki has endorsed a key element of Obama’s Iraq plan (a speedy timetable) and rejected the central tenet of McCain’s Iraq doctrine (a permanent South Korea-style military presence). And he has done so as explicitly as he can, with no room for the McCain campaign to argue that its proposals could be tolerated by the Iraqi government and forcing the American media to cover this for what it is: Iraq’s Prime Minister endorsing Barack Obama’s Iraq plan.
This will make it significantly easier for Obama to score points on Iraq in the coming months as he can now advocate for a timetable while invoking Maliki’s support. If the goal is to pacify Iraq, should that support not count for something? The Iraqi Prime Minister, after all, is not the enemy and the stakes of a pacified Iraq are as great for him as for American interests. If he is on record calling for American troops to leave Iraq and if he is not buying Bush’s argument that withdrawal would heighten chaos and civil war in Iraq, can McCain continue making that argument? And he can remain credible on issue of Iraq?
Of course, Maliki’s statement is dictated as much by strategic considerations than by political ones: Iraq’s public opinion and Maliki’s electorate do not want to hear about permanent bases and are in favor of American withdrawal, leaving Maliki no choice but to push for American withdrawal. But whatver Maliki’s motivations, it will be difficult for the McCain campaign to maneuver around it.
The campaign responded to Maliki’s comments today but made sure to avoid getting in a debate with the Prime Minister. Instead, McCain’s spokesperson insisted that the mere fact that Maliki is now talking of withdrawal is a testament to the success of the McCain-backed surge:
Let’s be clear, the only reason that the conversation about reducing troop levels in Iraq is happening is because John McCain challenged the failed Rumsfield-strategy in Iraq and argued for the surge strategy that is responsible for the successes we’ve achieved and which Barack Obama opposed.
Joe Klein points out that the success of the surge is a “tactical point” and is only useful to voters insofar as it informs the question of withdrawal. Even if voters become convinced that the surge is working, will they take that as a sign that troops should remain in Iraq or that it is time to bring them back home? Maliki weighing in on that debate has the potential to shift the Iraq debate and help Obama on what McCain regards as his own defining issue.