March 19, 2008 -- In a presidential election campaign that could turn this fall into a referendum on the Iraq War, the three '08 candidates have seized on the war's fifth anniversary to outline their Iraq plans and to try to draw contrasts with one another's policies.
Despite some recent success in keeping violence in Iraq from surging to previous levels, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, going into a sixth year, is the second biggest issue for primary voters after the economy.
With the issue threatening to define their candidacies, soon-to-be Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona visited Iraq this week to emphasize his commitment to keeping U.S. troops in the country to secure it.
Meanwhile, the dueling Democratic candidates -- who largely agree on pulling troops out of Iraq -- both planned speeches designed to draw distinctions between their plans, while framing McCain as a continuation of a failed Bush administration war strategy.
In a speech on Iraq today in North Carolina, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama outlined what his advisers called a "strategic vision for our country."
"It's time to turn the page on a failed strategy and a fundamentally flawed ideology," Obama said, outlining his plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq on "Day 1."
"Senator Clinton says that she and Senator McCain have passed a "Commander in Chief test" – not because of the judgments they've made, but because of the years they've spent in Washington," Obama said.
"She made a similar argument when she said her vote for war was based on her experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country – a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions."
Blasting his Democratic rival, Obama asked: "Who do you trust to end a war -- someone who opposed the war from the beginning, or someone who started opposing it when they started preparing a run for president?"
A National Strategy Beyond Iraq
Obama contrasted his Iraq plan with that of McCain, noting the invasion of Iraq was a fundamental strategic misstep, and in a swipe at the presumptive Republican nominee, argued no amount of great tactics can make up for a failed strategy.
Obama emphasized his proposals to not just have soldiers, Marines and the Air Force fighting terrorism but to tap other government agencies and the creation of a civilian expert reserve corps to "integrate the elements of our national power."
"We cannot place the burden of a new national security strategy on our military alone. We must integrate our diplomatic, information, economic and military power," he said, proposing an additional $1 billion in non- military assistance for Afghanistan each year.
"I will invest in our civilian capacity to operate alongside our troops in post-conflict zones and on humanitarian and stabilization missions. Instead of shuttering consulates in tough corners of the world, it's time to grow our Foreign Service and to expand USAID. Instead of giving up on the determination of young people to serve, it's time to double the size of our Peace Corps. Instead of letting people learn about America from enemy propaganda, it's time to recruit, train, and send out into the world an America's Voice Corps," Obama said.
In his speech Thursday in West Virginia, Obama will outline how the Iraq War has contributed to the country's economic woes and how the Bush administration's economic policies have left the country more vulnerable to national security threats.
Withdrawing U.S. Forces From Iraq
Obama has said that as president, he would ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to implement the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as immediately as possible at one to two brigades a month.
He has advocated keeping a residual force in Iraq to strike against al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to protect diplomats and others in Iraq. If Iraqi politicians fail to reach a political resolution, he advocates pulling out of the training of Iraqi forces. Obama has also suggested the United States could reintervene in Iraq with "the international community" should civil war and genocide break out in Iraq and advocates closing Guantanamo Bay.
During the campaign, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has questioned Obama's national security credentials and has insisted he has yet to pass "the commander in chief test."
The Illinois senator -- who was in the Illinois State Senate at the time Congress gave President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq as the administration argued that country had weapons of mass destruction -- often contrasts his early opposition to the war with McCain's and Clinton's Senate votes.
Clinton: Withdraw Troops Within 60 Days
Clinton, who voted to authorize the war, has since explained she would have never have voted that way "if she knew then what we know now."
On Monday Clinton delivered a speech on Iraq in which she renewed her pledge to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president, using her platform to attack both McCain and Obama.
"Despite the evidence, President Bush is determined to continue his failed policy in Iraq until he leaves office," Clinton said Monday at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"And Sen. McCain will gladly accept the torch and stay the course, keeping troops in Iraq for 100 more years if necessary," she said, referring as both Democratic candidates often do to a January answer McCain gave in a town hall meeting in New Hampshire after a crowd member asked McCain about a Bush statement that troops could stay in Iraq for 50 years.
"Maybe 100," McCain replied at the time. The Arizona senator later defended his statement, arguing that he was referring to a military presence similar to the U.S. presence in South Korea and Germany.
During her speech this week, Clinton framed the Republican nominee's plan as "the Bush-McCain Iraq policy: Don't learn from your mistakes -- repeat them."
The New York senator, who also advocates leaving a residual force inside Iraq but pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible, sought to squeeze some daylight between her and her Democratic rival on the issue by arguing he had been inconsistent on the war.
"Another choice," Clinton said during her speech, "is Sen. Obama, who has promised to bring combat troops out in 16 months. But according to his foreign policy adviser, you can't count on him to do that," she said, referring to Obama's former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power who suggested Obama might adjust his plan for a 16-month withdrawal.
Military Expert: Fixed Withdrawal Pledges Not Responsible
"You can't make a commitment in whatever month we're in now, in March of 2008 about what circumstances are gonna be like in January 2009," Power said in an interview with the BBC this month.
On a conference call with reporters Monday to explain the senator's position, Clinton's top advisers said emphatically there would be no room for adjustment in Clinton's Iraq plans, no matter what happens on the ground.
Asked whether Clinton will stick to her Iraq withdrawal plan regardless of the situation on the ground, at one point her senior foreign policy adviser suggested that "in the world there are contingencies" but her communications director immediately jumped in.
"The answer is yes!" Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said.
That kind of unequivocal political posturing on Iraq is irresponsible, says Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It frankly is not responsible to make fixed commitments for a president who will not be in office for at least nine months, who really won't be in a position to evaluate or act on the situation for almost a year," Cordesman said in a telephone interview with ABC News.
Cordesman, who is in the Gulf region this week, said McCain's policy of not committing to a fixed timetable for troop withdrawal is more responsible than Obama's or Clinton's.
"Sen. McCain's positions certainly tracks at this point in time more clearly with the realities on the ground," he said. "There is a political debate within the Democratic Party that is pushing both candidates to try to compete in gaining anti-war sentiment and in running for votes from the base of the Democratic Party."
Anti-War Coalition Pressures Democrats
The Democratic candidates are being urged by a large coalition of anti-war groups to do more to stop funding the war in Iraq. More than 40 anti-war groups including Win Without War and MoveOn.Org have signed a letter to the Democratic-led Congress, demanding it refuse to fund the war, and are launching a campaign today designed to pressure members of Congress to do more to bring the troops home.
"As we enter the sixth year of the Iraq War, we urge you to draft a new supplemental appropriations bill that will direct the president to immediately begin the orderly removal of all U.S troops from Iraq and complete this process as quickly and safely as possible. ... In addition, we strongly urge you to cease funding for military construction in Iraq and for U.S. military contractors in Iraq," reads the letter addressed to Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chair of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
The anti-war coalition is asking members to add their names to the letter online.
"The only way we can bring stability to Iraq and protect the security of the U.S. is to immediately withdraw troops," said Tom Andrews, Win Without War national director and a former Democratic member of Congress. "Until people and governments and actors from around the world see the United States not as a military occupier but as a partner seeking to provide support for Iraq and it's stability, we are never going to extract ourselves from that nightmare."
The coalition is also relaunching its effort today to bring retired military leaders to battleground states to hold town hall meetings and meet with editorial boards to talk about the costs of the war -- all designed to pressure members of Congress ahead of votes on the president's request for supplemental war funding and votes on defense appropriations and authorization bills.
"Voters think it's crazy to be spending all of this money on Iraq when the country is teetering on the brink of a recession," said MoveOn.Org campaign director Nita Chaudhary, who said members have organized over 800 vigils across the country and at the White House tonight to raise awareness about the war's cost, totaling $338 million every day, she said.
McCain: Continued Presence in Iraq
McCain, who once was an ardent critic of the Bush administration's initial handling of the war, now talks about maintaining during his would-be presidency, a continued military presence in Iraq in an effort to bring security and stability to the region and allow the fracturous Iraqi government room to come to a political accommodation.
The senator, who has been a longtime advocate of the eventual policy of increasing the American troop presence in Iraq, was in Baghdad this week to mark the anniversary. He has staked his campaign on the United States succeeding in Iraq, and has long argued the Democratic candidates' advocacy of withdrawal amounts to a defeat at the hands of al Qaeda and would dramatically enhance Iranian influence in the region.
"If we pull out of Iraq," McCain said in Jordan, Tuesday, "then obviously the Iranian influence is dramatically increased, al Qaeda has greater influence and endangers the region dramatically and the U.S.image and security challenges are dramatically increased."
The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting raised eyebrows Tuesday when he mistakenly said that Iran was allowing al Qaeda insurgents into the country to be trained and returned to Iraq.
Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, has taken steps to close its borders to al Qaeda fighters of the rival Sunni sect.
After McCain's friend Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., whispered in his ear, McCain said, "I'm sorry; the Iranians are training the extremists, not al Qaeda. Not al Qaeda. I'm sorry.''
During the presidential election, the candidates will be pressed to further specify what they would do as president about the war, a reality that grates on some military advisers.
Cordesman, whose latest report on Iraq advocates strategic patience, said that by the time the new president is sworn in and appoints his national security team, events on the ground in Iraq could be radically different.
Pointing to former President Carter's campaign never-acted-on pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, he said the number of times a presidential campaign accurately described what a president would do in wartime has been almost negligible.
"One has to be very, very careful about campaign rhetoric," he said. "The fact is it's not in our national interest to have candidates be too specific ... and it is certainly not responsible for a president, once elected, to act on the basis of campaign rhetoric when events overtake that rhetoric."
ABC News' Z. Kate Snow and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.