The desire within the McCain campaign to paint Barack Obama as inconsistent on Iraq is palpable. But McCain's criticisms are a bit inconsistent themselves.
On Monday, aides to the Arizona Republicans framed their Democratic rival as dangerously rigid in his war policy to the point that he won't allow "facts on the ground" to "get in the way of his journey to a politically convenient position on the war."
"Obama has made clear that he will never change course on Iraq, no matter the facts on the ground," a post written by aide Michael Goldfarb read.
Charges of blind stubbornness, however, came just one day after the McCain campaign decried Obama for "sending so many different signals to so many different people [on Iraq]" that it was "not fair for the American people to make this decision without knowing where Barack Obama stands."
"It wasn't too long ago when Sen. Obama called a second press conference and said he was puzzled by the reaction of the media to his position on Iraq," said Randy Scheunemann, a foreign policy adviser to McCain, during a conference call on Sunday. "Frankly what is puzzling is Sen. Obama's position on Iraq."
So what is it? Is Obama inflexible or deliberately obscure? Has he blindly tied himself to a timeline for troop withdrawal (one-to-two brigades per month over the course of 16 months), or is he too busy "refining" that position?
The McCain camp claims the two aren't mutually exclusive; that Obama "continues to obscure and obfuscate the facts of his Iraq plan" to the point that his position is unrecognizable. "He may be sticking to it, but we will have no idea what it is until he puts it into action."
As evidence they cite the op-ed Obama wrote in Monday's New York Times in which he laid out the need for a residual force to remain in Iraq to carry out counter-insurgency, troop-training, and anti-terrorism missions. How could he end the war, Goldfarb asks, if he wants to leave troops "of undetermined size" for "an unspecified amount of time"?
But independent experts say that the criticisms of Obama's Iraq policy are baseless. Noting the dangers in sticking to war proposals crafted two years in advance, as well as the importance of having certain policy convictions, they argue that Obama has done a solid job threading the needle.
"Those who call him too rigid have been ignoring what he has said the entire time he is running," said Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at the centrist Center for New America Security, "which is that he will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. That he will talk to his commanders when making his plan, which includes leaving a residual force... The only way the McCainiacs get traction on this issue is to basically generate a straw man version of Obama's position on Iraq. But all the back and forth obscures the fundamental difference between the two, which is that Obama wants to leave and McCain wants to stay. McCain's adviser suggests Japan and Germany and South Korea as a model, which means tens of thousands of troops In Iraq for decades. And Obama wants to end the war and get out. That is a huge, fundamental difference and it is getting lost in the back and forth."