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McCain's Dare Backfires

5 years ago
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At the time, it probably seemed like a good way to score political points. Back in May, John McCain began regularly taunting Barack Obama for not having visited Iraq in two years. Though McCain's own photo-op Iraq trips had provided controversy of their own, the Arizona Senator sensed an opening to portray Obama as out-of-touch with the situation on the ground:

"Look at what happened in the last two years since Senator Obama visited and declared the war lost," the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting told the Associated Press in an interview, noting that the Illinois senator's last trip to Iraq came before the military buildup that is credited with curbing violence.

"He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq and he has wanted to surrender for a long time,"

A couple of weeks later, after McCain had continued to push this line of attack, Obama announced he'd visit Iraq and Afghanistan before the November election. McCain seemed to have forced Obama's hand on the matter of visiting Iraq, though Obama was quick to portray the decision otherwise, and reiterated his stance on his long-term priorities by relaying a conversation with Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, in which he stated:

"I emphasized to him how encouraged I was by the reductions in violence in Iraq, but also insisted that it is important for us to begin the process of withdrawing U.S. troops, making clear that we have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq," Obama said.

"I gave [Zebari] an assurance that should we be elected an Obama administration will make sure that we continue with the progress that's been made in Iraq, that we won't act precipitously."

But the points the McCain might have scored by the sight of Obama making an isolated trip to Iraq, in effect responding to a McCain's dare, have been all but erased in the past few weeks.

Several things have happened. First, Obama took a lot of heat in the press and from McCain for stating:

"My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything that I've said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe. I said that based on the information that we had received from our commanders that one or two brigades a month could be pulled out safely, from a logistical perspective. My guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable. I'm going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold."

Once again, McCain smelled an opportunity, and accused Obama of not only changing his mind about Iraq, but, also, of adopting McCain's view:

He has now adopted John McCain's position that we cannot withdraw our troops immediately without concern for conditions on the ground.

Never mind that Obama had never called for a withdrawal "without concern for conditions on the ground," the Illinois Senator remained committed to withdrawing the troops within 16-months, a far cry from anything McCain was proposing.

Again, McCain may have come away with some short-term points, but those were quickly swept away by another development. This time, the U.S. military made a few moves of its own. First, it continued to beef up its forces in Afghanistan and has renewed our focus on the threat from Pakistan, the place Obama has always said was the central battlefield in the war on terrorism. Suddenly, we have more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan again, after having diverted the bulk of our forces to Iraq.

Second, the Iraqi government made clear that it wants the United States to implement a timetable for a speedy withdrawal as part of any future security deal. McCain, of course, recently said that a timetable was "not too important."

Third, the US military itself announced that, due to the success of the surge, it was considering upping the pace of troop withdrawals from Iraq.

In effect, the message is that the surge has brought the violence down, the Iraqis want us out, and Afghanistan is in need of our attention. Doesn't all that speak more in favor of a 16-month plan of action?

But the real conundrum for McCain regarding all the frequent-flyer miles Obama is set to start amassing is that this trip has ballooned into something a whole lot greater than whether or not McCain was right about troop levels. Obama smartly decided to expand his trip to include stops in Europe as well as the Middle East. Here's how the campaign described the enhanced trip:

The Obama campaign announced today that Senator Obama will be traveling overseas to assess the situation in countries that are critical to American national security, and to consult with close friends and allies. Senator Obama will visit France, Germany, Israel, Jordan and the United Kingdom where he will consult with the leaders of those nations about common challenges like terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change.

Obama is guaranteed enormous crowds and attention throughout Europe. As PM's Dave reported yesterday, the networks will send their anchors to cover this trip, not just reporters who happen to be stationed in the neighborhood. Remember McCain's big trip to Colombia? Well, most people don't. Or if they do, they can't tell you what it was all about.

Sure, Obama could make a major gaffe of some sort. Maybe he'll take a leak on the Brandenburg gate, or tell a big crowd that he's embarrassed that George Bush is from Texas, or take a Ms. Universe tumble. Who knows? McCain, however, is already kicking himself for suggesting this trip. Why? Because it'll end up making Obama look that much more presidential. Of course, McCain is looking for ways to criticize Obama for taking the trip he'd previously criticized him for not taking. But he's scolding his own staffers for calling the trip a "campaign rally." Here's Big Mac:

"I'm glad he is going to Iraq. I'm glad he is going to Afghanistan. It's long, long overdue if you want to lead this nation."

And speaking of long overdue, McCain can't be happy at the stories out today that show the following:

It turns out that presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has attended even fewer Afghanistan-related Senate hearings over the past two years than Obama's one. Which is a nice way of saying, McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has attended zero of his committee's six hearings on Afghanistan over the last two years.

Yes, events on the ground have a way of changing. And some dares have a way of backfiring.

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