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Iraq: The 2 Key Differences Between Obama and McCain that Must be Emphasized

07/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iraq is Barack Obama's signature issue. For him not to stand tall and proud on it would be worse than Al Gore's failure to mention global warming during the 2000 campaign. Thus far, he has done well politically with his position on Iraq. That often happens with fact-based, truthful policies. Funny, isn't it?

Articles are now popping up, however, suggesting that Obama's position on Iraq is stale, no longer reflecting the situation in Iraq. Those articles suggest that Obama is going to have to change his policy of a 16-month phased withdrawal, because it may upset an improving applecart that we have invested so many lives and dollars to achieve.

Changing specific policy recommendations is one thing. Changing principles is quite another. But Obama's policy recommendations must remain qualitatively, not just quantatively, different from Bush/McCain because Bush/McCain's are wrong and have been from the outset. And, Obama must make clear that his principles remain unshaken.

The two key points that must define Obama's differences with McCain are 1) Obama is committed to getting our troops out of Iraq, and will tell the Iraqis we are leaving; McCain will not. Obama will hold the Iraqis accountable with consequences; McCain will not; and, 2) that Obama had it right from the beginning and McCain was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Key Point #1: The minimal non-negotiable distinction must be that Obama will tell the Iraqis we are leaving, that our commitment is not open-ended. McCain will not.

Obama may not rigidly adhere to 16 months, but he will tell the American people in the campaign that he will tell the Iraqis that the US is leaving. He may emphasize his "make sure we get out more responsibly than we went in", but he will get the US out, and he must therefore be able to say that there are circumstances where, even if the Iraqis are not making progress, he will pull the US troops out.

That is, McCain is willing to keep the US hostage to what the Iraqis do or do not do. Obama is not.

Obama will hold the Iraqis accountable, with real consequences. McCain will not.

This is not only the minimum non-negotiable position (otherwise there is no real distinction with Bush/McCain), it is also perfect politics. If the Iraqis do make political progress between now and November, Obama can -- with great justification -- claim that it is because they know that with his election the US will be leaving that they are, finally, getting their act together and justify his long-term call for a withdrawal timetable.

If, on the other hand, progress is either spotty or non-existent, Obama will be perfectly positioned to tell the American people that the United States cannot remain hostage to the Iraqis political will. Yes, he will listen to the generals; if they tell him that the rigid timetable ought not to be followed to the last detail because some situation will improve with a little more time, then he can give them a little more time.

Flexible, yes. Open-ended, no. The emphasis is on "a little" more time, a month or two, not years.

Otherwise, like McCain's position, it makes the US hostage to the Iraqis' progress, on their timetable, not ours.

Obama's cannot, and should not.

Key Point #2: The Obama campaign should, daily, demand an answer from McCain to the question everyone else has been asked: "if you knew then what you know now, would you have voted for the war?". It is a no-win for McCain, and the Obama campaign needs to press the press to keep after McCain. If McCain says, "yes, he would have invaded", the American people will have another reason to reject him. If he says "no", his apology should be demanded and it will be interesting to see how the Republicans fry him.

If, as expected, he says "yes, but I would have fought it differently", that is fine. He will have set himself up to be "Russerted" with his own quotes:

"There's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias. So I think they can probably get along." [MSNBC, 4/23/03, at least then he knew there were Sunnis and Shia, that he seems to have forgotten in 2008).

"Because I believe that the success will be fairly easy," [CNN, 9/24/02]

"We're not going to get into house-to-house fighting in Baghdad." [CNN, 9/29/02]

"But the point is that, one, we will win this conflict. We will win it easily." [MSNBC, 1/22/03]

"But I believe that the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators." [NBC, 3/20/03]

"It's clear that the end is very much in sight." [ABC, 4/9/03]

"This is a mission accomplished." [This Week, ABC, 12/14/03]

"I'm confident we're on the right course." [ABC News, 3/7/04]

Oh yes, and while we are at it, why not ask him why he did not read the NIE before voting, and do not let him off the hook with "I was on the Defense Committee", as we did the Democrats in the primary. McCain should be hammered on carelessness, how could he know that the report contained no new information unless he had read it!

Key Point #3: Tie the Iraq War to the Economy. $12B per month, US needs, the debt, failure to pay for it, need for a new energy economy, and so on. The points are obvious, but they need to be made...repetitively.

The Obama campaign should also press the press to get a number from McCain -- how many more billions, how many more lives, is staying in Iraq worth? If there are no number, the commitment is open-ended.

The American people do not want an open-ended commitment.

Corollary #1: McCain's assertion of chaos and genocide if we leave cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. How does he know that? Is he as certain about that as he was that we would be welcomed as liberators? That the war would be easy? That we would not be engaged in house-to-house combat in the cities?

When inevitably challenged about "what if" chaos and genocide ensue, Obama ought to say that it is by no means a certainty, that the British left Basra to some violence but not genocide, and anyway the US cannot stay in Iraq until there is an absolute guarantee that it will not happen when we leave. If that were the criterion for withdrawal, we will be there forever. And, the American people want out, the Iraqi people want us out, and it was a stupid move to invade and occupy in the first place.

Corollary #2: Obama needs to point out that following McCain's policy either leads to a de-emphasis on al-Qaeda in Pakistan/Afghanistan, or the need for a military DRAFT. There is no way both these wars can be fought without further stretching, exhausting and decimating our military forces.

Obama should oppose the "back-door" draft. He ought to say that, if that is what McCain wants, he should be man enough to do it forthrightly, and institute a DRAFT.

The Obama campaign needs to reassert its principles and define its policies, and needs to distinguish them from John McCain's. Barack Obama can modify his particular timetable, or just announce that it must remain flexible around the precise timing, but that his commitment is not open-ended, and that he may very well be forced to pull out troops if the Iraqis are not meeting milestones.

Our commitment is not open-ended. The troops will come home. The Iraqis will be held accountable. There may be some flexibility around the timing, but not much -- weeks to months, not years. And, he will be willing to pull out troops if the Iraqis are not meeting milestones.

The Democratic Congress just showed what it will kowtow to a president committed to continuing the war. Why would they behave differently to McCain's intransigence than to Bush's?

Only a president committed to ending the war can end it.

Barack Obama is that president.

But, he must make the basic differences between him and McCain very clear.