Obama to ‘Refine’ Iraq Deadline, Keep it Exactly Same

Barack Obama gave a speech yesterday in which he said there was some flexibility in his plan, touted throughout the Democratic primary season, to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months followed by another speech in which he explained that he meant no such thing.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks during a news conference held at Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., July 3, 2008. (Associated Press)

Michael Cooper and Jeff Zeleny have a solid summary and analysis piece for the NYT, headlined “Obama Strives to Retain Some Flexibility on His Iraq Policy

Mr. Obama said at his first news conference that he planned a “thorough assessment” of his Iraq policy when he visits the country later this summer. “I’ve always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability,” he said. “That assessment has not changed. And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”

This drew some criticism . . .

So the Obama campaign hastily scheduled a second news conference to try to clarify his remarks. “We’re going to try this again,” Mr. Obama said. “Apparently, I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq.”

“Let me be as clear as I can be,” he said. “I intend to end this war. My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war — responsibly, deliberately, but decisively. And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades a month, and again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months’ time.”

He added that when he had spoken about possibly refining his policies, he was referring to questions about how big of a residual force should be left behind to train Iraqi forces and conduct counterterrorism operations — not the overall timeline for withdrawal.

Jonathan Weisman gets page 1 of WaPo with a report titled “Obama May Consider Slowing Iraq Withdrawal.”  He’s even more pointed:

Barack Obama said during a campaign stop in Fargo, N.D., that he wants to Sen. Barack Obama raised the possibility of slowing a promised gradual, 16-month withdrawal from Iraq if he is elected president, saying that Thursday he will consult with military commanders on an upcoming trip to the region and “continue to refine” his proposals.
In a second, hastily convened news conference, Obama insisted that his policies have not changed, and that he has “not equivocated” or is not “searching for maneuvering room” on Iraq.

Weisman wrote almost the exact same piece for WaPo’s Trail blog under the presumably selected-by-him post title “Obama Softens on Iraq Withdrawal Timeline.”

Politico‘s Mike Allen (“Obama to ‘refine’ Iraq plan“) had the same take:

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Thursday backed off his firm promise to withdraw combat forces from Iraq immediately and instead said he could “refine” his plan after his trip to Baghdad later this month.

Zeleny, writing for the NYT Caucus blog (“Obama Might ‘Refine’ Iraq Timeline“), had this helpful info late last evening:

As a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama has not been known for holding an abundance of news conferences. That was not the case here on Thursday, when he called two in a span of four hours.

So what prompted him to call a second afternoon session to talk specifically about Iraq?

Mr. Obama was scrolling through news reports on his Blackberry — taking particular note of stories about his Iraq policy — when he told his advisers he wanted to better explain a statement he made earlier about continuing to “refine my policies” regarding a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Modern campaigning at its finest!

This back-and-forth prompted dozens of blogopsheric responses, holiday weekend or not. memeorandum has logged responses from TIME.com, TPM Election Central, Hot Air, Redstate, Macsmind, Taylor Marsh, Major Garrett’s Bourbon Room, Liberal Values, Sister Toldjah, THE LIBERAL JOURNAL, Talking Points Memo, The Moderate Voice, The Carpetbagger Report, Power Line, Eunomia, The New Republic, The Corner, The News Buckit, Hullabaloo, Gateway Pundit, protein wisdom, The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room, The Impolitic, Truthdig, Real Clear Politics, Swampland, Weekly Standard Blog, Angry Bear, GOP.com, NO QUARTER, Pajamas Media, The Sundries Shack, TownHall Blog, TPM Election Central, Wake up America, Redstate, The New Republic, American Spectator, Washington Monthly, democracyarsenal.org, Soccer Dad, Pajamas Media, iowahawk, Hot Air, NewsBusters.org, Flopping Aces, Stop The ACLU, Open Left, The Jed ReportThe American Mind, Patterico’s Pontifications, Obsidian Wings and The Swamp as I write at 6:30 on a holiday morning.

I’ve only clicked through and scanned a dozen or so of those but it seems that Republican-leaning bloggers think that this is “The Mother of All Flip Flops” whereas Democrat-leaning bloggers think this is just a sign that Obama’s a thoughtful guy who will listen to the experts on nuanced issues, unlike the evil BushCo who will never ever change their mind when presented with evidence.

For my part, nothing about Obama’s statements yesterday surprise me. I’ve long believed that the differences between Obama and Hillary Clinton and between the Democrats and John McCain on Iraq have been wildly overplayed to draw contrasts in the election. Obama would work harder for withdrawal than McCain, who would be more committed to finishing what we’ve started. Either, though, would face the same reality on the ground, the same domestic political pressure, and essentially the same advice from the Service chiefs and combatant commanders. Come 20 May 2010, the sixteenth month of the 44th presidency, we’ll most assuredly still have a significant combat contingency in Iraq, yet a smaller one than we now have.

Taylor Marsh, no Obama lover, reminds us that Obama has always hedged his bets on Iraq including telling the late Tim Russert, “I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don’t want to make promises, not knowing what the situation’s going to be three or four years out.”

Michael Cohen‘s response is more amusing:

I smell a rat here. Not that long ago the McCain folks were attacking Obama for sticking to a phased withdrawal and refusing to shift course based on the improved security situation in Iraq. So now he talks of refining his policy and they go nuts because he has “reversed” himself. Isn’t that what they wanted him to do? So which one is it – do the McCain folks want Obama to switch course or don’t they?

They do! They think Obama’s “new” position is much sounder public policy than the bumper sticker “out in 16 months” nonsense that he’s hammered to his core audience, despite repeatedly sending signals that his actual policy was more nuanced and reality-dependent. At the same time, changing positions, even slightly, on a core policy issue is something opposing campaigns always seize upon with glee.

Good public policy often isn’t good politics, for those reasons. Nuance is both more confusing and more subject to attack than bold pronouncements. Fundamentally, though, Hilzoy‘s right:

Obama is saying what he will do if he is elected. He won’t be able to do any of it until he takes office, nearly seven months from now (if he wins.) The situation in Iraq can change quickly and unpredictably. Moreover, in the nature of things, there is information about the situation there that he will only have access to once he takes office. For Obama to say that he knows for sure, right now, exactly what he will do, in every detail, and that neither the advice he receives from the commanders on the ground nor anything that happens in the intervening months could possibly change his mind, would be idiotic. Politically expedient, perhaps, but idiotic nonetheless.

Campaigns, however, aren’t philosophy seminars. You’re better off doing bumper stickers and bold pronouncements in your speeches and leaving the nuance and caveats for you white papers or, better yet, your advisers and surrogates.

Is that the way it ought to be? Perhaps not. But many of the people chiding the press and Republicans for making such a big deal of this are still flogging the McCain “100 years” horse, months after the meaning was clear.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Iraq War, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t find what Sen. Obama is saying now a flip-flop, in fact, I think he’s been quite consistent. Rather I think it’s lawyerly misdirection. He’s been saying all along that he’d remove combat brigades from Iraq. That doesn’t equate to withdrawing from Iraq. Every so often he’s also said that the remaining forces would from engage in combat operations on occasion. I’m not precisely sure how that would work out.

    If this has been construed by some of Sen. Obama’s supporters as “withdrawing from Iraq”, I think the positioning has achieved its objective: to keep options open while giving the impression that he intends to withdraw from Iraq.

    From time to time Sen. Obama has also spoken vaguely about beefing up our presence in Afghanistan and redeploying the forces removed from Iraq into station nearby as an “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” force. I suspect that as the cost and diplomatic realities of these positions sink in that they’ll be modified a little.

  2. William d'Inger says:

    It’s not a flip-flop, but it is a blunder. He would be wise to not let it happen again. If Obama gets into the habit of calling second news conferences to explain his first news conferences, his credibility will suffer.

    Americans prefer bold leaders who get it right the first the first time. When President Reagan commanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, he didn’t come back four hours later and say, “But you don’t have to do it right away if you won’t have enough bulldozers west of the Ural Mountains until five years from now.”

  3. cian says:

    It’s not a flip-flop, but it is a blunder

    William’s right. Very bad politics, and surprising from a machine that has been so sharp up until now. This announcement was always going to have to come at some stage. While the strategy he has outlined form the get go remains the same (withdrawal rather than continued presence), the tactics would have to be tweaked on an ongoing basis, and while he referred to this during the primary, he did so as an aside almost.

    His advisers should have been making sure that this particular speech went off without a hitch. They dropped the ball, and on this subject, you just don’t get a second chance.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Just who is Barack Hussein Obama? With McCain, one has years of service to look at. Making a decision to support him or not is based on his record. With Obama, his record is like two sides of a coin. First he is for something, and when he gets what he wants from that position, he switches. The people he has distanced himself from really show is lack of judgement, not good judgement. That is unless you consider him just what he is. An ambitious, dishonest Chicago politician.

  5. This is not a new position.

    “Not one of us wants to see our servicemen and women in harm’s way a day longer than they have to be. And that’s why we must find the most responsible way to bring them home as quickly as possible, while still leaving the foundation of a secure Iraq that will not endanger the free world.”

    If Obama did not recognise the reality that managing a war requires flexibility beyond the theoretical, I would not back him for the Presidency.

    Look carefully: “I have seen no information that contradicts the notion”. Obama recognises something about becoming President – once you’re cleared to know certain things as Commander in Chief of our armed forces, you see a different picture. He’s prepared to accept that.

    I am more certain that Obama ought to be our next President than ever before. I watched his position on Iraq “spin” differently during the campaign, and it concerned me. Now that I see he was spinning the same position throughout, I’m much more confident that I’ve thrown my hat in the right ring.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Taliban Baracklock, I would bet you are able to justify any position change Obama made. I guess you were not paying any attention to what he said during the primaries. He refused to meet privately or in public with the commanding general in charge. Obama said over and over again that he would end the war in 2009. Was he lying then or now? There is no question he is lying it is just a matter of when.

  7. One Bit Shy says:

    People sure are hanging a lot off the word “refine”. Perhaps everyone has become so accustomed to Bush style Newspeak that they just assume that “refine” is code for “reverse”. That’s how politicians speak, isn’t it?

    But the more normal usage of the word is to polish or perfect or, in this context, work out the details. How amusing that all this hysteria has actually settled on an emphatic re-affirmation of a policy position that hasn’t changed at all.

    Since the start of his campaign, Obama hasn’t wavered from the policy of bringing combat troops home. And from the start he’s said that conditions on the ground can affect the details, but don’t change the policy.

    The really curious thing to me about all this is that flip-flop criticism has always depended upon Obama not really meaning what he says – as in using “refine” as some kind of cover for changing policy. Do you think anyone will notice if it turns out that he meant what he said?

  8. “Taliban Baracklock”

    Gabriel’s Law

    “I guess you were not paying any attention to what he said during the primaries.”

    I believe I already said I was concerned by the spin he placed on his positions during the primaries.

    “He refused to meet privately or in public with the commanding general in charge.”

    Didn’t he question General Petraeus during a congressional hearing in April?

    “Obama said over and over again that he would end the war in 2009.”

    Ending the war happens on paper. It’s all semantics; remember, Vietnam was not a war. He also made this promise in the same speech that he identified a 16 to 18 month timetable for withdrawal of combat brigades. Clearly, he intends the war to be over before all combat brigades are recalled, which is normal.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Which war ended on paper? With whom are you going to sign papers with? You just have not been paying attention. Ah, but you know he is a Marxist as you are. Any lie he tells is ok if it gets him to power. We will not have to worry however. This nation has never elected someone as far left as Obama is to be President. It will become obvious during the debates just how empty this suit is.

  10. “Which war ended on paper?”

    All of them. War is just a specific state of conflict. We can end the war at any time, simply by saying “the war is over”. We don’t have to DO anything. We don’t have to bring anyone home or stop fighting. We just have to say it’s over.

    “Ah, but you know he is a Marxist as you are.”

    Oh, good Lord. Just STFU. You don’t have the slightest clue what you’re saying. Anyone who thinks I’m a Marxist has shit for brains, and not much of it.

  11. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner, you wrote:

    Come 20 May 2010, the sixteenth month of the 44th presidency, we’ll most assuredly still have a significant combat contingency in Iraq, yet a smaller one than we now have.

    And on July 4, 1977, I would just as confidently have predicted that we’d have a functioning American embassy in the capital city of our stalwart Middle Eastern ally, Iran.

    Right now and for the last few months (post-“Surge”), things have been looking up in Iraq. It does indeed seem reasonable to hope that the 44th American president, be his name Obama or McCain, can draw down our forces there significantly, and that those who remain will be at less risk of injury or death on a day-to-day basis.

    But “volatile” is still the single word that best describes Iraq. It’s not at all hard to posit very plausible scenarios under which the Maliki government falls, and what follows is either an effective vacuum with no functioning national government or even a dramatically pro-Iranian and anti-American government. If either of those things happened, the 44th American president will be confronted with the decision whether to “re-surge” or to “bug out.”

    I’m not very confident about what is likely to happen in Iraq between now and, say, 2010. But I’m very confident that the instinctive reaction of a President McCain would be to stand firm, even double down, to prevent throwing away all that we and the Iraqi people have accomplished since 2003. And I’m even more confident that Barack Obama would bug out.

    We ought not pick presidents based on best-case scenarios.

  12. DL says:

    I promised change and you loved it -now when i appear to change you hate it. it’s so tough to smooze a vote out here -it’s not like Chicago at all. Where’s Ograh when I need her? George? Somebody?

    “We’ll be out whenever the puppetmaster pulling my strings up there says we’ll be out -now that’s refinement”

    Is that better Mr. Soros?

  13. Christopher says:

    Why is it so hard for all of you liberals?!?

    If you oppose the war (based on whatever, but mostly political expediency), then you OPPOSE THE WAR!!!! You should end it! Right away! As quickly as safely possible! END IT!

    Yet when dems got congress, did they vote to do that? NO! Has their nominee said he would do that? NO! What a bunch of hypocrites! Using “stability in Iraq” as an excuse? NO! Heck, that’s one of the main goals of the war itself! You can’t use that as an excuse to slow the end of the war! WTF!!!

    Obama has taken the correct position, but for all the wrong reasons. His rhetoric on the war has to do only with his own political ambition. You can’t say that about Bush, McCain, and the many republicans who have stayed the course on the war on terrorism despite its understandable unpopularity. Obama’s new stance is yet another indication of the type of president we would have in him: spineless, weak and unprincipled.