23 July 2008
In essence, Obama has declared the war in Iraq all but over. “There is security progress,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference in Amman, Jordan. “Now we need a political solution.” While a diminished US force under his presidency would continue to protect US personnel, target terrorists and provide training, he said, it would be up to Baghdad to consolidate the victory by “setting up a government that is working for the people.”
Two days spent in Afghanistan and two days in Iraq, Obama said, reinforced his belief that it is time for the United States to move on. Calling the situation in Afghanistan “perilous and urgent”, he said both US military and Afghan government officials agree that “we must act now to reverse a deteriorating situation”.
Obama’s analysis has been buttressed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders who, to the dismay of the White House and Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent, have publicly agreed with his call for completing a US combat withdrawal from Iraq in 2010.
McCain argues that the United States is succeeding in Iraq — although the war is still not over — because of last year’s “surge”of US troops, which Obama opposed. McCain’s aides and surrogates continued that theme on Tuesday, accusing Obama of what Rep Heather A Wilson called “a complete inability to acknowledge that the surge worked”.
But the Iraqi government’s newly stated position on troop withdrawals has put the McCain campaign — and many congressional Republicans who have been on record opposing timelines — in a difficult position. Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, told reporters on a campaign conference call that the senator would gauge the proper level of US troops in Iraq according to security conditions on the ground and the advice of US military commanders. He made no mention of the views of Iraq’s elected government.
But Rep Ray LaHood (R-Ill), a reliable opponent of withdrawal timelines, was not as dismissive. “If we’re going to crow about the fact that 12 million (Iraqis) voted and elected their own leadership, we have to pay attention to their leadership,” he said. “We can’t have it both ways. We should say we’re heading for the door.”
Some Republicans questioned the value of anything Maliki said, recalling that even senior Democrats last summer labelled him an inept leader and called for his ouster. “I find it interesting that Prime Minister Maliki is now the person to go to,” said Minority Whip Roy Blunt, the second-ranking Republican in the House.
Others insisted that Maliki’s statements were designed for domestic consumption in Iraq — which has scheduled provincial elections for December — and did not reflect his government’s true feelings.
As part of an overseas tour aimed at bolstering his foreign policy credentials, Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israel opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials. "I will share some of my ideas. The most important idea for me to reaffirm is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel -- one that cannot be broken," Obama said after landing at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday night. Obama, who faces Republican John McCain in the November election, is struggling to overcome wariness among some Israelis and some Jewish voters in the United States about the strength of his commitment to Israel.
Palestinian leaders dismayed
But he also dismayed Palestinian leaders when he said last month that Jerusalem should be Israel's "undivided" capital. Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state. Obama later said he used "poor phrasing" when he made the remarks. The itinerary of the Democratic candidate, an Illinois senator, also includes a visit to the occupied West Bank to meet with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Obama arrived in Israel just hours after a Palestinian rammed a bulldozer into vehicles on a busy Jerusalem street near the hotel where he will be staying. The attacked wounded at least 16 people, one seriously, before being shot dead.
At the airport, Obama said the bulldozer attack was "just one reminder of why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way to defeat terrorism." Obama also expressed his wish to reinforce the "historic special relationship between the United States and Israel." Prior to his visit to Israel, Obama visited Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a fact-finding trip and underscored his goal of bringing US troops home within 16 months and stepping up a focus on Afghanistan. Obama plans to visit Berlin, Paris and London after the Israel trip. Just after visiting Iraq, Obama told reporters in Amman he would work vigorously for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians but said it would not be easy. "My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs," Obama said, adding that it was unrealistic to expect a US president to "suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace".
Obama will stop on Wednesday in the Israeli town of Sderot, which sits near the border with the Gaza Strip and has been hit by cross-border rocket attacks. The rocket attacks, and Israeli military operations in the territory, have subsided since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took hold last month. Doubts among Israelis about Obama have been fueled in part by his pledge to increase engagement with Israel's arch-foe Iran, though he has emphasized any discussions would carry a tough message that Tehran must halt sensitive nuclear work. "He started out with one big strike against him -- which is that he was seen as the polar opposite of (President George W.) Bush, who is perceived here as a very supportive president," said Mark Heller of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. "Some of the concerns have been allayed but you'll probably still find more support for McCain here than in any other country outside the United States."