In a press conference moments ago in Fargo, North Dakota, Sen. Barack Obama was asked about reports he is considering modifying his commitment during the primaries to begin troop withdrawals within 60 days and seek to remove 1 to 2 combat brigades per month and have virtually all U.S. forces out of Iraq with 16 months. Obama has always said he would rely on the advice of military commanders but also made abundantly clear during the primaries that he dictated policy and while he would weigh the opinions of his commanders on the ground, his desire to end the war in Iraq was strong and he would do all within his power to start troop withdrawals as a means of encouraging Iraq's government to accelerate the process of political reconciliation.
Today's comments covered much of the same ground but included some phrases strong Iraq war opponents may find unsettling as they suggest new flexibility on troop withdrawal timelines and learning new facts on the ground during Obama's as-yet-unscheduled trip to Iraq this summer.
The first question was whether his critics are correct and that he is considering changing his policy on Iraq troop withdrawal timelines.
Obama: "You know these critics haven’t based their comments on anything that Ive said or anything that my campaign has said. Its pure speculation. Were planning to visit Iraq. I'm gonna do a thorough assessment when I'm there. I have been consistent through out this process that I believe the war in Iraq was a mistake.
That we need to bring this war to a responsible end. I have said repeatedly, although it was recently quoted as something new, that we need to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in and that view has not changed.
I continue to believe that it is a strategic error for us to maintain a long term occupation in Iraq at a time when conditions in Afghanistan are worsening, Al Qaeda has been able to establish bases in the areas of north west Pakistan,
Resources there are severely strained and were spending 10 to 12 billion dollars 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 have always said that I will listen to commanders on the ground;
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 and when I go to Iraq and I have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure Ill have more information and will continue to refine my policies."
He was then asked if this meant he was open to a timeline for troop withdrawals that might take longer than 16 months.
Obama: "I mean we can chase this around you know for a long time.
What I’ve said repeatedly is that my goal is to end this conflict in a responsible way as quickly as possible. My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything I've said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe. I said based on what the information we had received from our commanders that 1-2 brigades per month could be pulled out safely from a logistical perspective. And my guiding approach continues to be that we’ve got to make sure that our troops are safe, and that Iraq is stable. And I'm going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold and you know my job is to make sure that the strategic issues that we face, not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan in Iraq, and Pakistan that those are all taken into account and dealt with in a way that enhances Americas national security interest over the long term."
These comments may suggest to some that Obama is leaving himself more room to maneuver on troop withdrawals and setting up a scenario where he could re-calibrate his Iraq policy after his sit down meetings there with commanders on the ground, especially Gen. David Petraeus. This could draw criticism for inconsistency from the anti-war left and the pro-surge right.
Time will tell.