Immediately after President Bush marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war with a speech this morning defending its conduct and consequences, the Democrats who want to replace him in the White House tussled over who is best to change course.
Barack Obama indirectly and directly assailed Hillary Clinton.
The indirect: Obama said that the war began because too many politicians in Washington spent too little time reading intelligence reports and too much time reading political polls -- a slap at Clinton, who has acknowledged not digesting reports on Iraq's weapons programs before her 2002 vote authorizing the conflict.
The direct: Obama said that by claiming that her experience makes her more qualified than him to be commander-in-chief, she is playing right into the hands of Republican John McCain, who has more years in Washington and more national security credentials. And if McCain wins in November, the Iraq war will continue and "we all lose," Obama said.
"The way to win that debate and to keep America safe is to offer a clear contrast, and that’s what I will do when I am the nominee of the Democratic Party – because since before this war in Iraq began, I have made different judgments, I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past," Obama said in a speech in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, one of the nation's largest military bases.
In the speech, Obama said without ending the war in Iraq, the US can't address its national security and foreign policy needs.
He called for a renewed focus on Afghanistan to finish the fight against the Taliban and root out al Qaeda, including $1 billion more a year in non-military assistance to help the Afghan people. Obama also proposed a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy. He also called for enhanced efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, to cut global poverty in half, and to reduce global warming.
"I have no illusions that any of this will be easy," he said. "But I do know that we can only begin to make these changes when we end the mindset that focuses on Iraq and ignores the rest of the world."
For her part, Clinton, who gave her Iraq speech earlier in the week, released a video featuring testimonials from some of the 34 retired generals and admirals supporting her.
“We face growing threats around the globe. Sen. Clinton is the candidate that we believe is the strongest, most experienced leader,” Rear Admiral David Stone says in the video.
UPDATE: The Clinton campaign also released a web video questioning Obama's commitment to withdraw troops, splicing together clips of him making the pledge and of former adviser Samantha Power calling his 16-month plan a "best-case scenario."
UPDATE: McCain issued a statement today that warned of dire consequences if the US withdraws from Iraq too soon. Clinton and Obama both propose a phased withdrawal of combat troops that would likely take a year or more after they take office.
"America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism," McCain's statement said. "The security gains over the past year have been dramatic and undeniable."
"Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq," the statement continues. "Americans should be proud that once we implemented the surge and new counterinsurgency strategy, a dire situation has been dramatically improved. And, Americans know that the consequences of failure would leave our nation less secure for generations to come."
UPDATE: McCain's campaign followed up with a critique of what it called Obama's "fantasy plan for making us safer."
"Senator Obama says that ending the war will not be easy, that 'there will be dangers involved,' " senior adviser Mark Salter said in a statement. "Yet, in that patented way of his, he declines to name those dangers. Let me enumerate a few: al Qaeda, which is now on the run, will survive, claim victory, and continue to provoke sectarian tensions that, while they have been subdued by the 'tactics' of the surge, still exist and are ripe for provocation by al Qaeda, which would almost certainly ignite again civil war in Iraq, a civil war that could easily descend into genocide. To say that invading Iraq was used as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda is one thing. To pretend that our defeat there won't provide an even bigger one is foolish supposition."