By Sam Youngman - 07/15/08 06:07 PM EDT
In the days before his trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, Barack Obama worked to outline his foreign policy agenda while Republicans tried to paint him as a latecomer to the situation.
The week before his overseas fact-finding mission saw Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) lay out his plans in a New York Times op-ed and deliver a major foreign policy address that labeled the policies of President Bush and rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as failures.
In his speech in Washington on Tuesday, Obama said Bush and McCain have mistakenly made Iraq the central front in the war on terror instead of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
McCain, who was set to deliver a speech on the economy, instead responded to the Illinois Democrat. McCain outlined his strategy for the region and reiterated his belief that success in Afghanistan was wholly dependent on the continued success of the troop surge in Iraq.
“Sen. Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq,” McCain said. “In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan.”
McCain’s remarks were the latest in an offensive aimed at portraying Obama as naive on national security and inconsistent in his position on the Iraq war.
Obama, however, made clear in his remarks that he remains committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq even if he has changed his description of the surge and whether or not it has worked.
“For weeks now, Sen. McCain has argued that the gains of the surge mean that I should change my commitment to end the war,” Obama said. “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 made clear that his political strategy is to highlight the increased violence in Afghanistan, coupled with McCain’s resolve to stay in Iraq, as a way to win the national security issue.
The Democratic presidential candidate said repeatedly throughout his speech that the Republicans’ preoccupation with Iraq had cost Americans dearly in the war on terrorism by serving as a distraction from pursuing the enemy in the region where the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were hatched.
“Sen. McCain said — just months ago — that ‘Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq,’” Obama said. “I could not disagree more. Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. That’s what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month. And that’s why, as president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”
Because of this push on Afghanistan, Republicans have tried to portray Obama as a Johnny-come-lately to the troubles in the country. Their argument is that Obama is all talk and no action. And one of their talking points is to note that the Illinois senator, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, has not held any hearings on Afghanistan.
As part of that strategy, the subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), tried to pre-empt Obama’s speech by calling for hearings on the issue. DeMint, like Obama, pointed to rising violence in the region that has culminated in a record number of casualties in a month and an attack on a U.S. base.
“There are concerns about the imbalance between some European nations, their level of commitment to the fight in Afghanistan, and caveats these nations place on their forces in theater,” DeMint wrote in a letter to Obama. “I trust you will become well-acquainted with these issues. The Bush administration has worked hard to maintain and increase the level of forces our European allies have committed to the fight.
“However, despite these successes, I am concerned our subcommittee has not held any hearings on these issues over the last two years.”
Republicans have also sought to force national security issues to the forefront in light of an increasingly gloomy economy.
Obama’s overseas trip comes weeks after McCain challenged the Illinois senator to accompany him to Iraq.
At the time, Obama dismissed the invitation as a political stunt, but his fact-finding mission has opened him up to Republican criticism.
McCain noted in his remarks Tuesday that Obama’s speech came “before he has even left, before he has talked to Gen. David Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq and before he has even set foot in Afghanistan for the first time.”
“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.
Underscoring that criticism, President Bush made the unusual move of weighing in on the 2008 presidential race. Bush responded to a question at a White House news conference about any advice he would give to Obama ahead of his trip.
Bush, who maintained that he is “loath” to comment on the race, said Obama should “listen carefully to [Ambassador to Iraq] Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus.”
“It’s a temptation to let the politics at home get in the way, you know, with the considered judgment of the commanders,” Bush said.
As Bush asserted that he had not allowed politics to play into his decisions in the Iraq war, choosing instead to listen to “our commanders and our diplomats,” he talked about the politics of the war by mentioning by name one liberal group that has endorsed Obama.
“You got these groups out there, MoveOn.org, you know, banging away on these candidates,” Bush said. “And it’s hard to kind of divorce yourself from the politics. So I’m glad — I’m glad all the — a lot of these elected officials are going over there, because they’ll get an interesting — they’ll get an interesting insight, something that you don’t get from just reading your wonderful newspapers or listening to your TV shows.”
Obama’s campaign responded that the Illinois senator “has always said he will end this war and he will listen to the generals on the ground regarding tactics.”
“George Bush and John McCain don’t have a strategy for success in Iraq — they have a strategy for staying in Iraq,” Nick Shapiro, an Obama spokesman, said.