Facing criticism from the right and left over his Iraq plan, Sen. Barack Obama attempted to shore up credibility Tuesday for the anti-war stance that has been the underpinning of his presidential candidacy.
Delivering what his campaign billed as a major address on foreign policy and national security, Obama attempted to delicately balance his proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months with the realization that reductions in violence in Iraq appear to have coincided with a troop "surge" plan backed by his rival, Sen. John McCain.
As he gears up for his trip to Iraq and Afghanistan later this month, Obama sought to remind voters that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.
"This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century," Obama told a crowd Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Center for International Trade in Washington, D.C. "By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."
The presumptive Democratic nominee said fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan would be his top priority.
"In fact — as should have been apparent to President Bush and Senator McCain — the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was," he said.
Obama vowed to stick by his plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of becoming president, and said overall U.S. interests have been hurt rather than helped by the Bush administration's decision to increase the numbers of troops in Iraq in February 2007.
"[Sen. McCain] has argued that the gains of the surge mean that I should change my commitment to end the war. But this argument misconstrues what is necessary to succeed in Iraq, and stubbornly ignores the facts of the broader strategic picture that we face," Obama said.
However Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues Obama's 16-month timetable is problematic.
"Sen. McCain is much more responsive to what people on the ground in Iraq feel," Cordesman told ABC News. "It's very easy to react to an anticipated success because all you have to do is leave, but the problem is unintended failures, and that's where rigid schedules get you into trouble."
Cordesman added, "In fairness to Sen. Obama, he has become more flexible, he has qualified his decision more. But I think he's almost trapped by the base in the Democratic Party, and the fact is that alot of the political posturing within the party was based on the assumption that you wouldn't have the level of progress that you have in Iraq today."
The crowd of more than 600 invited guests for Obama's speech was made up of staff and academics from the Woodrow Wilson International Center as well as some local graduate students studying foreign relations.
Outside, a small group of McCain supporters protested Obama, holding signs that read "John McCain actually has a plan" and "The surge worked."
Hitting Obama on the day of his speech Tuesday, McCain slammed his Democratic rival for not supporting the troop "surge" that has coincided with a reduction in violence in Iraq.