Senator Barack Obama, who will formally claim the Democratic Party's
presidential nomination next month, has been working to defend and
clarify his position on Iraq in recent weeks. The effort, culminating
in a column in The New York Times, follows a statement he made July 3
that caused some to believe he was trying to back off of his campaign
promise to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months,
if he is elected president. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin looks
at Senator Obama's Iraq policy, and the controversy surrounding it.
It all started with one word - refine. On July 3, Senator Obama told reporters he would "refine" his Iraq policy after visiting the country and talking to U.S. commanders. The immediate political firestorm caused by that one word led the senator to convene another news conference just a few hours later.
"We are going to try this again," said Barack Obama. "Apparently, I was not clear enough this morning."
Senator Obama was eager to reassure his core supporters on one of his signature issues.
"I would be deliberate and careful in how we got out," he said. "I would bring our troops home at a pace of one-to-two brigades per month. And at that pace we would have our combat troops out in 16 months. That position has not changed. I have not equivocated on that position. I am not searching for maneuvering room with respect to that position."
But aside from drawing criticism from Obama's political opponents, that position has caused concern among some potential supporters in the middle of the political spectrum.
Some analysts like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, do not necessarily support the war, but worry that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could have serious negative consequences for Iraq, the region and U.S. interests.
"I am extremely concerned," said Michael O'Hanlon. "I think there is a lot of what the senator has said that is viable and reasonable, but that particular drawdown schedule, I think, would put at risk all the hard work and all the progress we have seen. It is just too fast."
O'Hanlon was a strong critic of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, and a skeptic of the troop surge the president announced a year and a half ago. But after two visits to Iraq since the surge began, O'Hanlon says progress on security and political issues is significant and needs to be protected, allowing for only a slow and careful U.S. withdrawal in the coming months.
"I believe that the next 15 to 18 months in Iraq are a period of considerable difficulty and fragility," he said. "Now that we have seen the surge occur, we should slow down the reductions a bit. We can probably continue to make modest reductions but they should not be at the same pace as they have been because the pace of the last seven months has been a dramatic cutback."
O'Hanlon and other experts point out that the end of the surge later this month will complete a 25-percent reduction in U.S. combat troop strength in Iraq. They argue that it would be dangerous to continue at that pace, and they say senior U.S. commanders agree.
Republican Party candidate Senator John McCain has a similar view, and says he will leave as many U.S. troops in Iraq as necessary, for as long as necessary, to ensure that stability is well established before any major U.S. troop withdrawal.
The man with the key responsibility for recommending future troop levels to President Bush, and to the next president, is the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. He is just beginning an expected six-week period of assessment that will culminate with his next set of recommendations in September. Petraeus is keeping his thoughts to himself in the meantime.
But one retired general, who works as an adviser to the Iraq commander and to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, says General Petraeus' recommendations will make the Iraq war a much less significant issue in the presidential election campaign.
The adviser, General Jack Keane, says he also believes that by early next year, when the next president takes office, Petraeus will be ready to recommend troop withdrawals that will not be far off what Senator Obama has called for.
"I do not believe we are arguing over very much between what Petraeus can not tell you now and what he would recommend to a new president in January, and what a new president would want to see, be they Republican or Democrat," said General Keane. "We are going to have significant force reduction in 2009 based on military commanders' recommendations, and it will be even more significant in 2010."
That is far from certain. But it would be good news for Senator Obama, who has appeared to be setting himself up for a confrontation with senior U.S. military officers, who have been cautious in their troop withdrawal recommendations.
With that in mind, analyst Michael O'Hanlon hopes Senator Obama's coming visit to Iraq will moderate his position.
"I am glad to hear that Senator Obama is going over there in July," said O'Hanlon. "I think that is a critically important decision on his account. And I am encouraged by it. And I would simply say let us all give him a little time to digest what he learns over there and hope that there is a revision to his public position before this fall."
But Senator Obama is doing his best to put an end to such speculation, in part through his opinion article in The New York Times, confirming his 16-month withdrawal plan, as he did back on July 3, just after that one word started the confusion over his policy.
"Let me be as clear as I can be.," said Senator Obama. "I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the joint chiefs of staff in and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war, responsible and deliberately, but decisively."
Senator Obama says his plan is the only way to pressure Iraqi officials to make needed progress on security and political issues. He makes provision only for what he calls "tactical adjustments" to ensure the withdrawal is safe. And he says that while he does not want a permanent U.S. troop presence in Iraq, he would be willing to keep a relatively small counter-terrorism force there for a while, along with trainers for the Iraqi military and enough troops to keep them safe.
The senator does not say exactly how many that would be, but he makes clear they would not be in the lead combat role they have had for the last five years.