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Clinton, Obama Surrogates Take Softer Approach On Iraq Withdrawal

First Posted: 04/10/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:30 PM ET

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Key surrogates to both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama suggested on Wednesday that a sensible policy in Iraq would provide the next commander in chief the flexibility to maintain troops levels if circumstances dictate.

The positions put the Senators generally at odds with the candidates they support, both of whom have stressed that they would stick to a strict time frame for troop withdrawal.

"What Barack has said is that we need to be more careful in our exit than we were careless in our entry into this war. And he has talked about beginning to bring a brigade a month out of Iraq but with consultation with military," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, an Obama supporter. "You know the pace of this withdrawal will be based on the reality on the ground. We are not going to create a license for al-Qaeda to expand into the Iraq theater. So you have to just say this is our commitment, this is our goal but it is going to be done in a careful, measured way."

Sen. Evan Bayh, a Clinton supporter from Indiana, was more firm in his answer, focusing primarily on Clinton's commitment "to changing the current policy."

Asked, however, if the next president should have the flexibility to maintain troop levels in Iraq should the situation require their presence, Bayh replied:

"Every president has that flexibility. But the important thing is: are you committed to a new course now? Are you sending a clear signal that things will be different, both to the American people and to the Iraqis? Only then, when they see that the American's mean business... then the Iraqis will get their acts together."

The comments of the two surrogates, made at a National Journal breakfast, are hardly out of the mainstream. Unlike the candidates they support, neither Senator has to appeal to a Democratic base committed and eager to see the war end. However, the remarks do come only weeks after the Obama and Clinton campaigns engaged in a bitter back and forth over who was more committed to disengaging from Iraq. That tiff arose after former Obama adviser Samantha Power was quoted saying that Obama could change his position on the speed of troop withdrawal depending on conditions on the ground.

Advisers to Clinton jumped on the line as evidence that voters couldn't trust Obama to deliver on his promises. And while, a week later, Clinton's own national security director, acknowledged that when it came to troop withdrawal, "There are, in the world, contingencies," aides to Clinton had definitively stated that she would stick to her withdrawal plan even if Iraq's security situation fell apart.

Now removed from the Obama campaign, Power said she was shocked out how much political mileage Clinton was trying to get out of her statement, saying the Senator's rigidity did "no justice to a responsible position."

In addition to discussing the ultimate need for troop-withdrawal flexibility, both Bayh and Durbin outlined how Iraq policy will be debated in the general election. Appearing alongside Sen. Lindsey Graham, a supporter of John McCain, the two Democrats repeatedly criticized the concept of an "open-ended" or "100 year" commitment.

"Of course we want to win the war on global terrorism, but if you talk to the experts, they say our presence in Iraq is creating more terrorists than we are eliminating," said Bayh. "Do we have responsibility to the Iraqi people? Yes. But our first responsibility is to the American people, and our presence there is not helping their security."

On the other side of the ideological divide, Graham touted McCain's political courage in supporting the troop surge as well as his personal and political experiences with the armed forces. He claimed that the proposals of both Obama and Clinton amounted to "leaving without consequence," a statement both Bayh and Durbin took umbrage with.

As for the U.S. future in Iraq, Graham accused the Democrats of misrepresenting McCain's position: "John didn't say I hope we are at war for another 100 years because I love it." Ultimately, Graham predicted, history would look kindly upon the Arizona Republican.

"We believe we have an opportunity in Iraq to win a major battle of ideological struggle. I've flown over Baghdad, there are soccer games all over town, there is more security, demand for electricity is up," said Graham. "The biggest problem in Iraq is the southern part where Iran has weaponized that part of the country."

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