On Eve of Obama Trip, National Security Debate Tightens

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Almost since Barack Obama announced his candidacy, one of the most compelling questions asked about his aspirations to be commander-in-chief was this: How Can He.....?

How Can He be ready?

How Can He say he's experienced?

How Can He know how brutal the world really is?

How Can He persuade our friends he's right and our enemies that he's serious?

How Can He.....

For a candidate with as little resume-based foreign policy experience, these questions loom large for Obama. They were hinted at until Hillary Clinton gave them a "3 am in the morning" moniker and have now been part and parcel of John McCain's criticism of Obama on all variety of national security and foreign policy issues. This week's Washington Post poll showed a yawning confidence gap between McCain and Obama (72 percent McCain, 48 percent Obama) on the narrow question of who would "be a good commander-in-chief."

But events this week may give Obama a chance to close that gap on McCain. Not immediately, but over time. And since the Obama strategy is predicated on closing the stature gap on national security and foreign policy in the summer so as to maximize built-in Obama advantages on domestic issues in the fall, this week may, let me emphasize, may be seen months later as a turning point.

Here's why: Developments this week on Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq gave Obama an ability to challenge ot only the criticism lodged against him so far, but to say events have reshaped the debate on terms closer Obama's priorities and world view than, say, six weeks ago when the general election began.

First, Afghanistan: McCain this week backed Obama's call for more combat troops in Afghanistan. He had resisted that for months because he didn't want to siphon troops from Iraq. McCain said Afghanistan needed more troops than Obama (McCain says three brigades and Obama says two brigades) AND a new military strategy -- a re-think, as it were, comparable to that which led to the new counter-insurgency approach in Iraq. On this, many analysts agree, but no new strategy can be implemented without more troops and McCain was behind Obama on that call. McCain also lost ground when he offered three different explanations about where the additional combat forces would come from (the U.S., then NATO, then maybe the U.S. and NATO). Yes, McCain can assert Obama missed many hearings on Afghanistan in the Foreign Relations Committee and didn't hold any on the NATO mission there as the relevant sub-committee chairman, but McCain missed even more Armed Services hearings on these and related subjects and, honestly, who in America decides their vote for the presidency based on committee attendance or sub-committee hearings held? Answer: no one -- not even committee staff.

Second, Iran: the Bush administration's move to send Under Secretary of State William Burns to Geneva this weekend for the P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions and to green light the opening of an interest section in Iran show a newfound openness to diplomacy. It is true that these two moves may only be tactical and part of an elaborate set of confidence-building exercises growing out of numerous back-channel conversations. As such, they can amount to a lot or nothing. No commitments are made and no face can be lost if nothing good comes of these endeavors. Equally possible, however, is that they are small steps the administration now believes may lead somewhere, for surely these options have been available for many years and were ignored. The larger political significance of this for Obama is that he and his surrogates can argue Obama said talk and the administration is talking. Is it direct negotiations at the presidential level? No. Is that distinction important as a matter of policy and state craft? You bet. Does that distinction undermine the value of the "Obama said talk and we're talking" talking point? Not one bit.

Lastly, word today from the White House that it agreed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki that a "time horizon" is worth contemplating for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq makes Obama's push for a "timetable" for troop withdrawals sound less threatening.

Is there a difference between a "horizon" and a "timetable"? Yes. A time horizon is negotiated with the Iraqi government and makes the Maliki government co-equal partners in evaluating the security situation and sharing in the planning for troop withdrawals, thereby enhancing, potentially, its standing in the nation generally and with its Shiite backers specifically. A timetable is dictated by the U.S. president and is, generally speaking, less concerned with Iraqi security needs on the ground. It is concerned, principally, with the safe exit of U.S. combat forces, not the safety of those left behind without a U.S.-led counter-insurgency strategy. That doesn't mean chaos and bloodshed will inevitably ensue, but it does mean the order of priority is driven by, as Obama said again this week, a new mission: "end this war."

The upside for Obama the administration now talks more and more about U.S. forces assuming "over-watch" operations (see White House statement below) in which Iraqi forces take the lead and U.S. forces monitor and assist. With this work well underway, the Obama timetable for withdrawals looks more plausible so long as progress on the ground continues.

As a matter of substance, the differences between a "time horizon" and "timetable" are important. But as a matter of style and semantics, it's the kind of difference that can be easily blurred or assumed to be more about word games and political posturing than military strategy. Should that impression take hold, the advantage will accrue to Obama. The "time horizon" move also allows the Obama campaign and its surrogates to say, with more than some justification, the idea of systematic troop withdrawals is no longer a defeatist strategy (and, of course, Obama would never concede it was in the first place). The larger point is the "time horizon" language gives Obama more credibility on the future of Iraq, even as McCain seeks to undermine his credibility for opposing the very troop surge that now allows for more robust troop withdrawal planning.

On this last issue, of the "time horizon," I wanted to provide all of today's statements in the order in which they were received. Note the time lag between the White House statement and the others)

White House statement at 10:51 a.m.:

President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki spoke yesterday in their regularly scheduled secure video conference, about a range of matters including the improving security situation and the performance of Iraqi Security Forces across Iraq, from Basra, to Maysan, Baghdad and Sadr City, and Mosul. The two leaders welcomed the recent visit of Prime Minister Erdogan to Baghdad and the successful visit of Prime Minister Maliki to the UAE. They also discussed ongoing initiatives to follow security gains with Iraqi investment in its people, infrastructure, cities, and towns, which will be aided by a $21 billion supplemental budget now before the Iraqi parliament.

In the context of these improving political, economic, and security conditions, the President and the Prime Minister discussed the ongoing negotiations to establish a normalized bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United States. The leaders agreed on a common way forward to conclude these negotiations as soon as possible, and noted in particular the progress made toward completing a broad strategic framework agreement that will build on the Declaration of Principles signed last November, and include areas of cooperation across many fields, including economics, diplomacy, health, culture, education, and security.

In the area of security cooperation, the President and the Prime Minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. The President and Prime Minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal.

The two leaders welcomed in this regard the return of the final surge brigade to the United States this month, and the ongoing transition from a primary combat role for U.S. forces to an overwatch role, which focuses on training and advising Iraqi forces, and conducting counter-terror operations in support of those forces.
This transition and the subsequent reduction in U.S. forces from Iraq is a testament to the improving capacity of Iraq's Security Forces and the success of joint operations that were initiated under the new strategy put in place by the President and the Prime Minister in January 2007.

Here's McCain's statement at 4:02 p.m:

"Progress between the United States and Iraq on a time horizon for American troop presence is further evidence that the surge has succeeded. Most of the U.S. forces used in the surge have already been withdrawn. When a further conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces is possible, it will be because we and our Iraqi partners built on the successes of the surge strategy, which Senator Obama opposed, predicted would fail, voted against and campaigned against in the primary. When we withdraw, we will withdraw with honor and victory. An honorable and victorious withdrawal would not be possible if Senator Obama's views had prevailed. An artificial timetable based on political expediency would have led to disaster and could still turn success into defeat. If we had followed Senator Obama's policy, Iraq would have descended into chaos, American casualties would be far higher, and the region would be destabilized."

And here's Obama's response at 5:35 p.m. from spokesman Bill Burton:

"Barack Obama has consistently urged the Bush Administration to negotiate the redeployment of our troops in the context of talks about a Status of Forces Agreement. Todays announcement represents a step in the right direction, as the Administration has shifted from its opposition to any talks with Iraq about the removal of our combat troops, and specified a change in mission for American forces. Now, instead of vague illusions to a general time horizon, its time to pressure Iraqs leaders to reach the political accommodation necessary for long-term stability, and to refocus on strengthening our military and finishing the fight in Afghanistan."