Advantage, Obama

Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki and Barack Obama share at least one thing in common – both have trouble settling on a position regarding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Obama’s inconsistency is well-documented, and so too, in recent days, is Maliki’s. His latest position, following a meeting with Obama, is that “We are hoping that in 2010 combat troops will withdraw from Iraq.” This, of course, is not Obama’s current position since (a) Obama is pledging, not “hoping” and (b) Obama plans to complete the withdrawal during the first half of 2010.

Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, also weighed in after the meeting with Obama. He said that Iraqi leaders share “a common interest … to schedule the withdrawal of American troops.” He added that, for his part, he’d “be happy if we reach an agreement [on], for instance, the 31st of December 2010″ as the withdrawal date, provided that any such goal could be revised depending on threats and the pace of training for Iraqi security forces. Obama has been all over the place on the flexibility of his June 2010 withdrawal date, but generally does not characterize it as a mere “goal” that can be substantially revised.

But these finer points are not terribly germane. What matters is that Obama will likely profit from the fact that Iraq’s leaders have made certain statements that Obama can claim (albeit somewhat misleadingly) reflect his basic position. As a result, Obama does not come off looking reckless or outside the present mainstream.

Obama also profits from the fact that so much of the discussion is about what Iraq’s leaders say. For one thing, it shifts the focus away from Obama’s own incoherence and inconsistency and onto that of Iraqi politicians. For another, John McCain would almost certainly prefer that the focus be on what our generals are telling Obama. However, the generals feel an obligation not to become involved in American presidential politics. Iraq’s leaders are under any such constraint, and the story so far is all about their various rather ambiguous remarks.

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