Obama's war position could be his weakness

Posted in Iraq | 18-Mar-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Senator Barack Obama.

When John McCain says he could lose the presidential election because of his position on Iraq, people nod. But Barack Obama?

Put it this way: Obama doesn't acknowledge that his call for a complete withdrawal of American troops by a specific date has become a risk to his candidacy. But the evidence suggests it is no longer the golden path to victory in November, or even to the Democratic nomination, that many of his backers once seemed to think.

On Friday, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll reported that about 35 percent of Americans believed that it was McCain who had the right approach to the war - not giving up and not leaving Iraq to Al Qaeda and chaos - compared with 30 percent for Hillary Rodham Clinton and 27 percent for Obama.

Specifically, on a pullout of troops, the Pew Research Center, in a report published two weeks earlier without reference to the candidates, found a virtually even split for the first time since 2006: 49 percent saying bring the troops home "as soon as possible" (a notion that both McCain or Clinton could endorse as long as it comes without a completion date); and 47 percent wanting troops to stay on until "the situation stabilizes."

Add two chunks of reality and a caveat to the mix.

A) In the bruising Ohio Democratic primary won by Clinton this month, Iraq was the most important concern of only 9 percent of probable Democratic voters, a small fraction compared with those focused on economic and health issues.

B) According to Pew Research, while 54 percent of Americans think the war was "the wrong decision," 53 percent now believe the "U.S. effort in Iraq will succeed."

Caveat: Beyond the current run of diminished casualties and seeming military successes - plus a surge in troops and the Bush administration's contrasting withdrawal of five combat brigades by the end of July - no polling on Iraq can ever soften its potential to become the issue foremost in America's mind at any moment before Election Day.

So where does all this point? To the proposition that Obama is in the process of losing some of the effect of what he once obviously thought were his wonder-weapons.

The double warhead: First, the charmed innocence of being demonstrably opposed to the war from before the get-go - a kind of one-man freedom from original sin - while 70 percent of his countrymen (including great numbers of Democrats) had approved George W. Bush's handling of Iraq the night attacks on Baghdad began five years ago, on March 20, 2003.

Then, there is the certainty of announcing a specific time frame for a troop withdrawal. If Obama is elected, it's over by the end of next year. By this stroke, consider Baghdad free for vacation travel by Easter 2010.

But the legitimacy and touch-of-the-prophet routine no longer functions magically for Obama at a time when rage and contrition about the war have diminished from their 2006 congressional election level.

With the polls saying the possibility of the United States NOT losing in Iraq is an increasingly respectable notion (and no longer a shameful desire), telling the terrorists and insurgents we're gone on such-and-such date has a massive downside.

Would Woody Hayes or Joe Paterno (two legendary field-marshal type football coaches from the win-or-else Ohio/Pennsylvania heartland) signal their game plans to the world before the second half began? My guess about the answer from the Reagan Democrats Obama so much needs to capture in next month's Pennsylvania primary could sound like "ain't no way."

The problem here for Obama suggests that he doesn't seem to be picking up on this or the general trend in the polls - and if he does, that he won't risk alienating his support among the Democrats' left-wing activists.

When Clinton challenged his notions about withdrawal, Obama shot back from on high, "She doesn't have standing to question my position on this issue."

The "standing"? That's something like telling the 70 percent of Americans who, according to The New York Times, went along with Bush as the war began, that they are forever compromised. And that their concerns about Obama's position on a withdrawal are not fully legitimate.

Actually, what this approach might be doing is adding substance to the supposition that Obama thinks something else about Iraq than what he's now saying.

On the withdrawal timetable, that notion has a basis in fact. Indeed, Samantha Power, a valued foreign policy adviser to Obama, who got fired for calling Clinton a monster, also said, concerning Iraq if Obama is elected, "He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or as a U.S. senator."

There was no give from the Obama camp suggesting that Power's remark - hardly an unreasonable one - might be more than a little true.

Questioned in a campaign debate if after the withdrawal he would send troops back to quell an insurrection or civil war, Obama avoided a specific response, The Associated Press reported.

Yet Power suggested that Obama would be listening to the generals, among others, on issues like when a withdrawal finishes, or whether a permanent troop presence in Iraq is required. Rather than saying, sure, there's some wisdom there, Obama again chose being right about Iraq as if by revelation, and all the time.

Coming from a man who promises an end to divisiveness in American politics (and in light of current polling), this is the equivalent of saying you are hopelessly wrong to what could be half or more of the electorate. And in a way, it's an echo of McCain's line that his position on Iraq could lose him the election.

These days, Obama's stance looks like a brittle one that may need revision.

After all, this is the self-proclaimed candidate of historic change.

And he did say in July 2004, when it looked like America was winning the war in Iraq, and long after his first announcement of opposition to it, "There's not much difference between my position and George Bush's at this stage."