Obama’s war judgment

Barack Obama could have made Karl Rove proud. 

Had Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) actually rigged it with Nouri al-Maliki so the prime minister of Iraq would go out of his way to endorse Obama’s withdrawal plan, it would have been a page out of the Rove manual — how to win by attacking, and ultimately diminishing, your opponent’s strength.

Just as Republicans struck at the heart of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) record in 2004 as a Vietnam veteran awarded the Purple Heart, Obama now hopes to pierce the armor of a war hero who was right about how to turn around the war in Iraq. As he questioned the value of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) experience in the primary campaign, Obama questions John McCain’s judgment in Iraq and in the war on terror.

Obama is certainly a very controlled and controlling politician. He makes and tolerates few mistakes, and has proven himself a deft strategist. But not even Obama could plan the outcome of a trip to two war zones. Not only could all kinds of awkward things happen — just ask President George H.W. Bush, who threw up in public on his 1992 trip to Japan — but Obama’s bold and unprecedented trip could have attracted any number of slights. What if some government official, unswayed by Obamamania, had suggested that perhaps the junior senator from Illinois might be better served by holding more hearings in the Foreign Relations subcommittee he chairs before starring on the world stage?

But instead of insults or obstacles, Obama got cheering soldiers, the perfect basketball shot, and not one but two statements from the Iraqi government backing his exit policy. McCain, who was finally seeing the fruits of his principled stand on the surge, found his back against the wall. The story appeared to feed right into McCain’s self-fulfilling prophecy narrative — that he is only good at fighting but not at winning. Against terrible pressure he backed the surge, only to pay dearly when it finally worked.

Yet, as dramatic as the circumstances were and as helpful as they seemed to Obama, good luck doesn’t last. All the conversation about the Iraq war in the past tense soon turned to past-tense questions about Obama’s judgment on the surge. When network anchors asked if he would oppose the surge all over again, Obama said yes, he would, despite there being “no doubt” that it reduced violence, and he stubbornly refused to use the word “success” to characterize the surge. “I have no idea what would have happened if we had applied my approach, which was to put more pressure on the Iraqis to arrive at a political reconciliation. So this is all hypotheticals,” the defensive candidate told Katie Couric of CBS News.

Obama’s candidacy was premised on his sound judgment, that unlike Clinton and McCain he knew the United States should not invade Iraq. A statement his campaign released on Oct. 12, 2007 read that “Obama said past judgments are the most important indication of how leaders will make future decisions about foreign policy.

He credited [former North Carolina] Sen. [John] Edwards for renouncing the apologizing for his Iraq vote instead of claiming that the vote wasn’t for war, but criticized Sen. Clinton for claiming the vote was for more diplomacy.”

As the debate about withdrawal continues, so will the questions about the surge, and whether Obama’s opposition to more troops was the right judgment call. When Obama speaks before throngs in Berlin Thursday, he will have a camera crew on hand to capture the Kodak moment. But when he returns home with the footage, possibly for use in a political commercial, Obama will still face questions about his judgment.

Without the red carpet, picturesque backdrops and applauding soldiers, Americans will hear his answers more clearly.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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