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US/IRAQ: McCain Knee-Capped by Al-Maliki

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 21 2008 (IPS) - This weekend’s surprise endorsement by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Sen. Barack Obama’s call for U.S. combat forces to leave Iraq by mid-2010 marks a serious setback to Sen. John McCain, who has tried hard to depict his Democratic rival as “naïve” on foreign policy, especially with respect to Iraq.

Sen. Barack Obama arrived in Baghdad Monday after scoring a major foreign policy coup. Credit: Obama campaign

Sen. Barack Obama arrived in Baghdad Monday after scoring a major foreign policy coup. Credit: Obama campaign

That al-Maliki’s endorsement in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine came on the very eve of Obama’s visit to Baghdad has made things even worse for the McCain camp, which at first echoed the White House in insisting that the prime minister’s remarks had been “misunderstood and mistranslated”.

Even McCain’s staunchest supporters admitted Monday that al-Maliki’s comments constituted what the right-wing National Review magazine called a “body-blow” to the Republican candidate, who has made Iraq – and what he claims is the unqualified success of the “surge” strategy in the past year there – the centrepiece of his efforts to claim the mantle of seasoned foreign policy veteran.

“Maybe McCain shouldn’t have been so emphatic” about urging Obama to visit Iraq, rued the Review’s White House correspondent, Byron York. “What if Obama went to Iraq, decided his position was the correct one, and then, in a major campaign coup, received what appeared to be the endorsement of the Iraqi prime minister? And – extra points – made himself look more statesmanlike in the process?

“Obama arrived in Baghdad early this morning, and all that seems to have happened,” he noted.

For himself, Obama, who met with al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials Monday, remained decidedly low-key about the turn of events, describing his talks with al-Maliki merely as a “wonderful visit” and declining to crow over what his campaign and political pros back home saw as a major boost.

“…(I)n the annals of candidate luck, there has scarcely been a more fortuitous one than the gift handed to Barack Obama by al-Maliki in his interview,” wrote John Podhoretz, the editor of the neo-conservative Commentary magazine on his blog. “Obama can fairly claim to have staked out a position acceptable to the legitimate government of Iraq. And with that, McCain’s job of convincing the American people that Obama is a novice who cannot be trusted to hold power just (became) far more difficult.”

In fact, however, al-Maliki’s remarks were just the latest in a series of events surrounding the so-called “war on terror” where the McCain campaign has appeared to struggle to catch up to Obama.

While Obama and his chief advisers have for months described Afghanistan and the Taliban-dominated areas of Pakistan as the “central front in the war on terror” from which President George W. Bush – with McCain’s enthusiastic support – diverted U.S. military and intelligence resources by invading Iraq, the Republican candidate has, at least until just last week, largely ignored the fast-deteriorating situation in both countries.

Thus, it was only after Obama gave a major policy address Wednesday in which he called for Washington to send at least two more brigades to Afghanistan and to triple non-military assistance to Pakistan as part of a plan to contain the Taliban insurgency there that McCain released his own plan which echoed much of what his Democratic rival had urged.

Two days later, Obama himself was in Afghanistan meeting with President Hamid Karzai and U.S. troops there to help dramatise his message.

And while McCain and his supporters tried to use the occasion to highlight the Illinois senator’s inexperience by stressing it was only his first trip to the country, they found it nearly impossible to get their voice heard amid the unprecedented media coverage that so far has treated Obama on his trip to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and western Europe as if he were already president.

If McCain was seen as late in his understanding of the situation in southwest Asia, he seems to have virtually missed the boat with respect to the evolution of Iraqi politics over the last several months, particularly as the Bush administration intensified its efforts to negotiate the future terms governing U.S. forces in Iraq after the mandate approved by the U.N. Security Council expires at the end of the year.

McCain has long favoured a long-term presence, at one time suggesting that the U.S. military should keep forces there 100 years or more. He has frequently asserted that South Korea, where Washington has stationed forces for nearly 60 years, would be a good model for Iraq.

In that respect, he has lagged behind even the Bush administration which, as negotiations over the future of its military forces in Iraq became more difficult, appeared to become increasingly reconciled to the fact that internal Iraqi politics made any long-term agreement impossible.

That became abundantly clear last Friday when Bush, who has long rejected a timetable for withdrawal, agreed in a joint statement with al-Maliki to setting a “general time horizon” for reducing U.S. troops from Iraq. Obama’s campaign hailed the new language as a “step in the right direction”, while McCain warned that “an artificial timetable” could prove disastrous.

The next day, however, Der Spiegel published its interview in which al-Maliki explicitly endorsed Obama’s call for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops 16 months from the inauguration of a new president next January. “That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” he said, adding that “those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic.”

Both the White House and the McCain campaign were clearly caught off-guard. But Iraq specialists said they reflected a consensus within his government, if not the country as a whole.

“It seems to me that there have been enough different statements made by enough different Iraqi officials to make it pretty clear that this is the new position of the Iraqi government,” said Marc Lynch, an Iraq expert at George Washington University. He added that al-Maliki himself “may also understand better what Obama’s position actually is” – specifically that, after combat troops were withdrawn, the remaining U.S. forces, of which there could be tens of thousands, could play an “overwatch” role in support of the Iraqi military and security forces.

“I do think they are looking for the U.S. to play a support role,” said Colin Kahl, a military specialist at Georgetown University who has advised Obama. “This is precisely the role that Sen. Obama has proposed…, and the news out of Iraq probably means they are increasingly comfortable with Sen. Obama’s way.”

If so, that doesn’t help McCain who, were it not for al-Maliki’s remarks, was poised to seize on a weekend interview by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, in which he warned that withdrawing all combat troops within two years from now would be “very dangerous” given the fragility of the situation in Iraq. Given al-Maliki’s statement and the media hoopla surrounding Obama’s trip, however, his words received little notice.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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