Barack Obama and John McCain today offered diametrically opposite views of the war in Iraq, even as both called for sending thousands more US troops to Afghanistan.
Democrat Obama declared that the failed policy in Iraq -- which he argued was never the central front in the war on terror -- has distracted attention from the growing terrorist threat in Afghanistan and proves the need to withdraw from Iraq. "If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned," he said in a speech in Washington. "And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan."
But Republican McCain answered that the success of the troop surge in Iraq now allows the US military to increase forces in Afghanistan. "Senator Obama will tell you we can't win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards," McCain declared in a speech in Albuquerque, N.M. "It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. It is by applying the tried and true principles of counter-insurgency used in the surge -- which Senator Obama opposed -- that we will win in Afghanistan."
In what is being billed as a major policy speech, Obama declared this morning that if elected president, he would redirect attention and US forces to Afghanistan.
"It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large," he said. "Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia."
That strategic imbalance, Obama argues, is the result of a misguided policy in Iraq that he would end by withdrawing nearly all US combat troops within 16 months of taking office -- and that would only continue under his Republican rival John McCain, a key supporter of the so-called surge of US troops that even Obama has grudgingly conceded has helped reduce violence.
"What’s missing in our debate about Iraq -- what has been missing since before the war began – is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy," Obama said. "This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."
"As President, I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy -- one that recognizes that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin," he continued. "I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
Obama is scheduled to follow up his speech with appearances on PBS and CNN this evening. He is also scheduled to soon visit Iraq and Afghanistan for the first time since January 2006.
While Obama called for sending two more brigades to Afghanistan, McCain called for sending three.
"Although the situation in Iraq is much improved, another test awaits whoever wins this election: the war in Afghanistan," McCain said. "The status quo is not acceptable. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive. From the moment the next President walks into the Oval Office, he will face critical decisions about Afghanistan.
"With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan," McCain continued. "I know how to win wars. And if I'm elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory."
McCain, who says a withdrawal from Iraq now would amount to surrender, argued that he -- not Obama -- was right about Iraq.
"Over the last year, Senator Obama and I were part of a great debate about the war in Iraq. Both of us agreed the Bush administration had pursued a failed strategy there and that we had to change course. Where Senator Obama and I disagreed, fundamentally, was what course we should take. I called for a comprehensive new strategy -- a surge of troops and counterinsurgency to win the war. Senator Obama disagreed. He opposed the surge, predicted it would increase sectarian violence, and called for our troops to retreat as quickly as possible.
"Today we know Senator Obama was wrong. The surge has succeeded. And because of its success, the next President will inherit a situation in Iraq in which America's enemies are on the run, and our soldiers are beginning to come home."
McCain also criticized Obama for outlining his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before actually visiting the war-torn countries.
"Senator Obama is departing soon on a trip abroad that will include a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Afghanistan," McCain plans to say, according to excerpts released by his campaign. "And I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has 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 is trying to press his advantage among voters on terror and national security -- the only issues, in fact, that polls show Americans have more confidence in McCain. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published today shows that 72 percent of Americans say McCain would make a good commander-in-chief, while only 48 percent said Obama would and 48 percent said he would not.
On the specific question of Iraq, however, the survey found that Americans are evenly divided on Obama's timetable for withdrawal and McCain's position that events on the ground should decide the next moves. And Americans are also split on which candidate they trust more to handle Iraq.
UPDATE: A new New York Times/CBS News poll offers mixed results for the candidates on Iraq.
While 45 percent of Americans say efforts to stabilize Iraq are going well, up 20 percentage points from a year ago, about 60 percent say the United States should have stayed out of Iraq in the first place, according to the poll, released online today.
Nearly 8 in 10 in the poll said McCain would generally continue the president’s policies in Iraq, which are generally unpopular.
While McCain pushed for the surge and a different strategy against the insurgency later in the war, Democrats are trying to tie McCain to his support of President Bush earlier in the conflict, hoping to dent his advantage on nationa security.
In a new web video released today, the Democratic National Committee accuses McCain of trying to rewrite history. The video juxtaposes a top McCain adviser saying on a weekend political talk show that it would be wrong to say that McCain was aligned with the president on Iraq with clips of McCain on several TV shows enthusiastically backing the Bush administration.
Asked about Obama's speech, President Bush told reporters today that the war on terror is being fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- and that Iraq is going better now.
"Afghanistan is a tough fight," Bush said at a White House press conference.
While there has not been a terrorist attack in the US since Sept. 11, 2001, the US cannot allow safe haven for terrorists, he said. "I would hope that whoever follows me understands that we're in a war."
Obama also released a new TV ad today that highlights one facet of his speech -- his bipartisan work on stopping the smuggling of nuclear weapons.
His campaign said the ad is to air in Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.