Parsing Obama's Iraq Speech

It was Lee Hamilton, the Democrats' wise old man of national security, who let slip the real reason for Barack Obama's big foreign policy speech in Washington on Tuesday. Hamilton was introducing the party's presumptive nominee in front of an audience of foreign policy wonks and Obama fans hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Hamilton said he normally brushed off such moments by saying that the distinguished speaker needed no introduction. But then he heard how Obama had recently tried to walk into a local gym but was challenged for some proof of identity. "So I said to myself, whoa," Hamilton told the audience. "Maybe we better get back to the basics here. Our speaker today is Barack Obama. B-A-R-A-C-K. O-B-A-M-A."

Obama smiled wryly, but the occasion for the speech was no joke. Buffeted by GOP charges that he's flip-flopped on the Iraq war, and facing down a bump in the polls for his Republican foe John McCain, Obama knew he needed a strong showing to help stem the criticism on the eve of a major trip abroad-set to encompass not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Middle East and Western Europe as well.

According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 72 per cent say McCain would be a good commander-in-chief; 48 per cent say Obama would be good. Of course, McCain's military service may account for a good chunk of the gap between the two. But that gap is unsettling for Democrats-especially since the same survey showed that 63 percent believe the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and 51 per cent believe the U.S. has been unsuccessful in taking on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Obama began his speech by invoking the familiar model of the Marshall Plan-the diplomatic and economic initiatives that helped pave the way for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. But he quickly cut to the chase, outlining a strategy for coping with the fallout from the Iraq war in the years to come. "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," he said in front of no less than eight Stars and Stripes.

"This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize," Obama argued. "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."

Obama went straight at McCain's record on Iraq, hoping to chip away at his rival's perceived strength as a military leader in the latest polls. "I opposed going to war in Iraq; Senator McCain was one of Washington's biggest supporters for war," he said. "I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban; Senator McCain claimed that we would be greeted as liberators, and that democracy would spread across the Middle East. Those were the judgments we made on the most important strategic question since the end of the Cold War."

But the politics of Iraq are complex. President Bush has called for a return of some soldiers deployed there. And McCain has succeeded in shifting the debate from the origins of the war to the successes of the recent surge. Even Obama's aides acknowledge that a debate about the history of the war is of limited use: it can raise doubts about the other side, but doesn't answer questions about the future. And they have long wanted to press McCain on what "victory" in Iraq would look like. What conditions would allow him to bring the troops home? Tuesday's speech was yet another attempt to exploit the definition that McCain has previously used--of a peaceful, stable Iraq that is allied to U.S. interests and blocks Iran's regional goals. It remains to be seen how effective the speech was in shifting the terms of the debate. On to Baghdad.