- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

I hope Sen. Barack Obama remembered to send Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard a Valentine’s Day card. The PM has done the Democratic presidential hopeful from Illinois a tremendous favor: He has treated Mr. Obama’s Iraq ideas seriously.

Perhaps you missed this story amidst cable TV’s obsessive search for the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

During an Australian television interview, Mr. Howard stuck his nose into American politics with a cheap charge that Mr. Obama’s Iraq war proposal was a gift to terrorists. “If I was running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats,” he said.

Has Mr. Howard, as they might say Down Under, gone “dotty”? Not quite, his apologists note, although he is under pressure. Recent polls show him lagging in his re-election bid this year. He also is a close ally of President Bush, which can be frustrating these days. So he’s playing the anti-terror card, even at the risk of recklessly injecting himself into an allied country’s domestic party politics.

Mr. Obama called the prime minister’s bluff, sounding like a guy from a windy city where politics ain’t beanbag. He pointed out that Australia has deployed 1,400 troops to Iraq compared to almost 140,000 who are there from the U.S. and gave Mr. Howard a challenge: “If he’s ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq. I would suggest he call up another 20,000 Australians and send them up to Iraq.” Take that, Mr. PM.

Yet, for all of his public outrage, Mr. Obama should be privately delighted. After weeks of public fascination with his biography, his grade schools, his Hawaiian vacation photos and his nicotine withdrawal, it’s about time somebody cared about his ideas.

I don’t know if Mr. Howard’s view will help him in Australia, but Americans know a losing cause when they see one. A new Gallup poll here says 63 percent of Americans want a timetable set to bring our troops home by the end of 2008. Even among those who back President Bush’s troop increase, almost a third said they want a timetable for pulling out.

Mr. Obama calls for a “phased redeployment” of all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, to pressure the Iraqis toward a political settlement and reduction in violence.

That’s in accord with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group Report co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat. Their report concluded that, “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.”

Mr. Howard might prefer the cautious two-step front-runner New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has danced on the war issue, but it frustrates many in her party’s base. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has come up fast on the outside in the Democratic horse race, especially in Iowa polls, with his call for immediate withdrawal.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, positions himself as a voice for reason and “hope,” his big theme these days, laying out rewards and penalties for Iraqis to strengthen their own security. His plan allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain for counterterrorism and for training Iraqi security forces. The withdrawal also could be suspended temporarily as Iraqis meet goals already set by the Bush administration.

Ironically, the best hope and most widely praised suggestion for Iraq comes from Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who recently embarrassed himself with his unintentionally condescending descriptions of Mr. Obama as “articulate” and “clean.”

Had Mr. Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not stepped on his own announcement of presidential candidacy in that way, he might have launched a useful debate. He calls for a “soft partitioning” of Iraq between three largely autonomous regions for Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds under “a viable central government” in Baghdad.

If Mr. Bush’s long-shot surge and counterinsurgency effort fails, Mr. Biden’s plan, drawn up with the help of Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, offers the sort of compromise that has proved so elusive. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the best of many imperfect proposals.

Just imagine: A serious debate could end up with a marriage of the Obama and Biden proposals. Unfortunately, we in the media tend to be drawn to conflict more than to compromise. Too often, it just doesn’t seem like news when people find themselves in serious agreement. Newsmakers seem more interesting when they sound dotty.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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