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."
McCain Hits Obama on Iraq Plan
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.
"I called for a comprehensive new strategy — a surge of troops and counterinsurgency to win the war. Senator Obama disagreed. He opposed the surge, predicted it would increase sectarian violence, and called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible," McCain said in Albuquerque, N.M., today.
"Today we know Senator Obama was wrong. The surge has succeeded. And because of its success, the next president will inherit a situation in Iraq in which America's enemies are on the run, and our soldiers are beginning to come home," McCain said.
McCain accused Obama of changing his opinion of the increase of US troops in Iraq.
"He goes on to say today, 'I had no doubt we would see a reduction in violence with the surge.' My friends, flip floppers all over the world are enraged. It gives new meaning. It gives new meaning," McCain said. "So my friends this is a very significant difference of opinion that we had. And it's pretty clear that Sen Obama is contradicting the statements he made on the surge and war in Iraq that he made for a long time."
McCain also slammed Obama for outlining his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has spoken to US commanders on the ground in Iraq.
"In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy," McCain said.
Neither candidate can afford to lose any political ground on the tricky issue of what to do about Iraq.
Voters believe McCain is stronger than Obama on national security despite Democratic attempts to tie McCain to the unpopular war and an increasingly unpopular Republican president, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Seventy-two percent of Americans say McCain would be a good commander-in-chief of the military, while only 48 percent say Obama would be a good commander-in-chief, according to the poll.
Americans remain split as to whose plan for Iraq would be better for the nation. McCain has long said he believes any conditions on the ground must dictate any troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Obama Counters Criticism From Right and Left
Obama has faced a barrage of criticism from the left for remarks he made two weeks ago suggesting he would "revise" his Iraq withdrawal pledge after speaking with commanders on the ground.
That led to accusations that Obama had "flip-flopped" on his promise to withdraw U.S. troops at a rate of one to two brigades per month over 16 months.
"My problem is that Barack Obama has started to not always agree with himself — falling prey instead to the Conventional Wisdom sirens," wrote Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post Web site.
Adding to confusion about Obama's position on Iraq, the Obama campaign removed from its Web site Sunday night criticism of the U.S. troop surge, as first reported by the New York Daily News.
"The surge is not working," Obama's old Iraq plan stated on the site. But with insurgent attacks falling to their lowest level since March 2004, the campaign has posted a new Iraq plan , citing an "improved security situation" paid for with the blood of U.S. troops since the surge began in February 2007.
Obama has also faced criticism from the military he one day hopes to lead.
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told ABC News' Jonathan Karl last week that if Obama visits Iraq later this month, commanders there will outline for him, in detail, the dangers of withdrawing too quickly.
Top commanders remain concerned that the gains are reversible and that withdrawing troops too quickly would be a mistake.
"Instead of any time-based approach to any decision for withdrawal, it's got to be conditions-based, with the starting point being an intelligence analysis of what might be here today, and what might lie ahead in the future," Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for Iraq, told ABC News' Martha Raddatz recently.
Gearing up for his trip to Iraq, Obama penned a New York Times opinion piece Monday, repeating that he would consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government "to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected."
While people on the right criticize Obama for moving too quickly in his rhetoric about removing U.S. troops from Iraq, some on the left argue it's not fast enough.
"There is a new report coming out from the Naval Academy that suggest troops could come out even faster than 16 months," Tom Andrews of the anti-war coalition "Win Without War" group, told ABC News.
Andrews said Obama has done well in trying to articulate the need for troops to come out of Iraq, but said many remain troubled by Obama's plan to leave a "residual" force of troops in Iraq.
"The questions are: What does he mean by residual forces? How many troops? What would their role be?" Andrews said. "He has yet to define that."
ABC News' Karen Travers, Jake Tapper, Rick Klein, Jennifer Duck, and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.