In an interview with the Military Times last week, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said of his plans to withdraw troops from Iraq that if "current trends continue and we’re in a position where we continue to see reductions in violence and stabilizations and continue to see some improvements on the part of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, then you know my hope would be that we could draw down in a deliberate fashion in consultation with the Iraqi government, at a pace that is determined in consultation with General Petraeus and the other commanders on the ground and it strikes me that that’s something we can begin relatively soon after inauguration."
He added: "If on the other hand you’ve got a deteriorating situation for some reason then that’s going to have to be taken into account.”
The notion that Obama’s withdrawal plan will be impacted by consultations with the Iraqi government, Gen. David Petraeus and commanders on the ground, and could be changed depending on a deteriorating situation, has been seized upon by Republicans as further evidence of Obama’s incoherence, flip-flopping, and zig-zagging on his plans to withdraw US troops within 16 months of his inauguration.
“How can Barack Obama claim to have a consistent Iraq policy?" asks RNC spokesman Alex Conant. "It’s clear Obama is rightly trying to reverse the central premise of his campaign: his pledge to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq. Obama needs to acknowledge that he was wrong in opposing the surge, and he needs to accept that his words mean things and fully explain what his Iraq policy would be as Commander in Chief.”
Writes the Military Times: "Getting U.S. combat troops out of Iraq is a key Obama goal, and one where he said he is misunderstood. His campaign materials say Obama would begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, one or two brigades a month, as soon as he takes office. But he added in the interview that the start of the withdrawal also depends on the security conditions on the ground.
"Obama said he wants to reduce combat troops, leaving forces to continue training Iraqi police and military officers, providing security for U.S. officials and facilities and for counterterrorism operations. Exactly when and how quickly this would happen depends on the situation in the field, he said, acknowledging that military commanders on the ground would play a key role in recommending what steps to take.
"Obama said he would not order any ‘precipitous’ withdrawal of combat forces. Instead, he said, his policy is that ‘we should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless in getting in….I have always said that as commander in chief, I would seek the advice and counsel of our generals,’ Obama said. But, in the end, ‘it is the job of commander in chief to set the strategy.’
"A strategic factor in the decision to keep forces in Iraq includes, for him, a question about the risk of not having enough combat-ready forces for other operations. ‘If we have only one battle-ready brigade outside the Iraq rotation to respond to other risks, that’s not good strategic planning by the commander in chief,’ he said. ‘If we have a situation in Afghanistan where we are seeing more and more violence in the eastern portion of Afghanistan, at a time when we’ve actually increased the forces down there and we’ve got some of the best battle-tested operations deployed there, and we’re still seeing increases in violence, what that tells me is that we’ve got real problems.’"
In some ways, I’m not sure that this is entirely an issue of flip-flopping as much as it is one of emphasis. Many of these wiggle phrases — "as careful getting out as we were careless getting in," etc. — have been in Obama’s speeches for months if not years.
But that said, I have never heard Obama tell a crowd of Oregon liberals that he plans on consulting with David Petraeus. *
UPDATE: I mis-read an Obama quote in an earlier version of this post, confusing a reference to combat-ready US troops with a reference to combat-ready Iraqi troops. My bad; apologies. I have removed the incorrect sentence.