July 21, 2008 -- After meeting with top U.S. military commanders and members of the Iraqi government, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Monday his opposition to the surge and support for a firm timetable for the withdrawal of troops hasn't changed.
In an exclusive interview, Obama told "Nightline" that if elected president, "we're going to begin to phase out our troops."
Obama is seeing a vastly different Iraq than the one he saw when he last visited more than two years ago. Violence and American casualties are way down, and the streets of Baghdad are bustling again.
So far this month, five U.S. troops have been killed in combat, compared with 78 U.S. deaths last July. Attacks across the country are down more than 80 percent. Still, when asked if knowing what he knows now, he would support the surge, the senator said no.
"These kinds of hypotheticals are very difficult," he said. "Hindsight is 20/20. But I think that what I am absolutely convinced of is, at that time, we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one that I just disagreed with, and one that I continue to disagree with -- is to look narrowly at Iraq and not focus on these broader issues."
Afghanistan: The 'Central Front'
Those broader issues mainly include Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama arrived in Iraq today after a weekend in Afghanistan, where increasing violence has caused concern.
Obama has said he wants to pull troops from Iraq and deploy them to Afghanistan.
"My argument would be we need to have some sort of time frame because we have to start planning if we want to get an additional two brigades in Afghanistan," he said. "We've got to start planning now.
"I said a year and a half ago that we needed more troops in Afghanistan -- at least two brigades," Obama said. "John McCain, at the time, didn't think that was necessary, and now there's a convergence around the notion that we need at least two and maybe three brigades in Afghanistan."
Despite differences with his Republican counterpart, Obama said that he and McCain both want to see success in Iraq.
"John McCain doesn't want to see us take a wrong strategy when it comes to fighting the war on terror," he said. "I think John McCain wants to see America safe, just like I do. And so, I respect his best judgments in many of these issues, but I think it's important to recognize that, on the majority of issues that we've faced in terms of foreign policy, not just over the past four years, but over the past six, seven years, that my batting average is pretty darn good."
When asked if he is committed to winning the war in Iraq, Obama said, "I don't think we have any choice. We have to win the broader war against terror that threatens America and its interests. I think that Iraq is one front on that war, but I think the central front is in Afghanistan and in the border regions of Pakistan."
The McCain campaign, however, cited Obama's statement that even in hindsight he would not support the surge in Iraq.
"Barack Obama admitted tonight that he would rather see failure in Iraq than concede that he was wrong about the surge," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement. "A candidate who places his political ambition ahead of our national interest does not pass the threshold to be commander in chief."
Speaking to a small crowd in Maine on Monday, McCain spoke about the success of the surge. "He said [the surge] would fail and he refuses to this day to acknowledge it's succeeded. And my friends, that's what judgment is about. That's why I'm qualified to lead and I don't need any on the job training," McCain said to applause.
A New Mission
Obama said that, after being sworn in, he would give U.S. military commanders a new mission: "for us to begin a phased redeployment at a pace of one to two brigades per month, at which point we would have our combat troops out in 16 months. That's the goal that I'm setting."
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee met with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American troops in Iraq, and the architect of the troop surge strategy that Obama has opposed.
Obama and Petraeus have also staked out opposing positions on whether there should be a timetable for withdrawing American forces.
Obama said that in his meeting with Petraeus, the general discussed his "deep concerns" about "a timetable that doesn't take into account what they anticipate might be a change in conditions."
"My job is to think about the national security interests as a whole and to weigh and balance risks in Afghanistan and Iraq," Obama said. "Their job is just to get the job done here, and I completely understand that.
"I think it is indisputable that, because of great work that they have done, as well as the unbelievable work that the troops have done, we've made significant progress in terms of reducing violence in Iraq," he said.
However, Obama would not attribute the decreased violence entirely to the troop surge, which he opposed, instead saying that it was the result of "political factors inside Iraq that came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, my assessment would be correct. ... The point I was making at the time was the political dynamic was the driving force in that sectarian violence."
'End Game' in Iraq
Speaking about his support for a timetable for troop withdrawal, Obama said he wasn't changing his position by saying he would take into account the assessment of military commanders on the ground.
"What I will refuse to do is to get boxed in into what I consider two false choices," he said. "Either I have a rigid timeline, come hell or high water, and I am blind to anything that happens in the intervening 16 months, or, alternatively, I am completely deferring to whatever the commanders on the ground say, which is what George Bush says he's doing, in which case I'm not doing my job as commander in chief. I'm essentially, simply rubber-stamping decisions that are made on the ground.
"I think that there is some convergence where not only the [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] government, but even the Bush administration suggested that, well, we need to have some time horizon. ... There was a sense that we need to start pointing to an end game here."
Obama cited the $10 billion being spent monthly on the war during a time of economic struggle as justification for a timetable.
"If we're spending 10 billion a month over the next four or five years, that's 10 billion a month we're not using to rebuild the U.S., or drawing down our national debt, or making sure that families have health care," he said. "So, these are all trade-offs the next president is going to have to make."
Obama said he recognizes that the United States has a number of missions in Iraq that would have to be carried out "under any circumstances," including counterterrorism efforts in the region, support for the Iraqi forces, and continued economic development.
Meeting With Maliki
Before sitting down with Petraeus, Obama met with Maliki, who was quoted this weekend in the German magazine Der Spiegel, saying Obama's call for withdrawing U.S. troops over a 16-month period "would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes" -- a statement that stunned the White House.
Maliki's office later said he was misquoted, but an independent translation of his comments confirmed the gist of his remarks.
Obama said that during their discussion, Maliki spoke about the need for a time frame for withdrawal, "but his view is he wants some flexibility in terms of how that's carried out."
Obama also said that Maliki feels his government is ready to exercise more sovereignty.
"I made very clear to him that we have one president at a time," Obama said. "And it is the job of the Bush administration to work with [the] Iraqi government. I am a United States senator, I can present my views as a candidate and I can present my views as a senator who believes that we can't bind the next president to an agreement that involves us committing troops or budget."
Commander in Chief?
Recent polls have indicated that some Americans doubt whether Obama is up to the challenges of being commander in chief. He said he considers the responsibility of that position to be "profound."
"You've got young people who are coming here, 21, 22, 24 [years old] ... if you go to Walter Reed, you see young men and women of the same age who lost a limb or lost their sight," he said. "What we are asking of them is profound, and that means that, as commander in chief, it is absolutely my obligation to get it right, to get the decisions as accurate as possible, based on the best facts available and to clear away the politics and to clear away the ideology and the preassumptions, but to also recognize that these service members take such extraordinary pride in their work.
"Regardless of these legitimate differences, strategic differences between myself and John McCain or George Bush or anybody else, we are absolutely united in being proud of them and understanding that, given their sacrifices, we better fulfill our duties at least as well as they're fulfilling theirs."