POLITICS
03/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton Camp Hedges, Then Backpedals, On Troop Withdrawal

Ever since former aide Samantha Power admitted to the BBC that Sen. Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan could change depending on conditions on the ground, the Clinton campaign has been unrelenting in its criticism.

"Out campaigning Senator Obama tells voters that as president he'd withdraw combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months, but one of his top foreign policy advisers told a different story," Sen. Clinton herself declared in a speech today. "Giving speeches alone won't end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep certainly won't end it. In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it's whether the president delivers on the speeches."

On a conference call later that day, however, aides to the New York senator fumbled a bit, giving the impression that their Iraq plans could also change depending on circumstance -- and then abruptly back-peddling.

In a rapid back-and-forth exchange at the end of the session, Michael Dobbs, of the Washington Post, asked repeatedly whether Clinton would stick to withdrawing one to two brigades of troops a month even if there is a massive spike of violence as U.S. troops departed.

Trying his best to keep the campaign line, Lee Feinstein, Clinton's National Security Director, nevertheless acknowledged: "There are, in the world, contingencies."

He was, to be sure, quick to get back on point. "But it is a very different manner when you enter office un-intending to implement the plan you have put out on the campaign trail, which what we have seemed to have learned n on the basis of the comments of a former senior aide to Senator Obama."

This, however, was not a sufficient explanation for Dobbs who rightfully wanted to know whether a hypothetical Clinton administration would really tie itself to a withdrawal plan more than a half a year prior to taking office.

Weren't contingencies exactly what Power was talking about? "Even if there's a new upsurge of violence in Iraq she will stick to that plan, or is that just the best case scenario?" he asked.

"Hillary has dealt with this issue a million times," said Neera Tanden, the campaign's policy director. "She has said she would bring her troops home. She has said there will be a small force to address al Qaeda."

This, Dobbs noted, was another evasion. Yes or no, would Clinton stick to the withdrawal plan she has outlined even if the security situation in Iraq were to fall apart?

Finally, the campaign's spokesperson stepped in.

"This is Howard Wolfson," he said. "You asked for a one-word answer and the answer is yes."

Late Update: Susan Rice, Senator Obama's foreign policy adviser, is asked about the same issue on a later conference call. She doesn't, as Wolfson did, firmly say that Obama will not adjust his withdrawal plan. She does, however, rip into Feinstein and, tangentially Clinton, for the "contingencies" remark.

"Sen. Obama has been very clear about his position, he believes that it is entirely realistic and responsible to redeploy our forces from Iraq at a rate of one to two combat brigades per month and that is what he will immediately do upon taking office... He believes it is perfectly possible, and perfectly reasonable, to affect a rate of one to two combat brigades per month.

[snip]

"On the one hand Lee Feinstein said that [Sen. Clinton's] plan was subject to contingencies, which was an interesting phrase and begs the question, what are contingencies?... But if that is Sen. Clintons' position, it is the height of politics and hypocrisy for Sen. Clinton to criticize Sen. Obama for doing what I just said."