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Obama aide signals shift on Iraq policy

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A top defense adviser to Barack Obama is recommending that significant "residual" U.S. military forces remain in Iraq to ensure its stability, an emerging policy shift that is angering the Democratic Party's anti-war left and has Republicans charging "flip-flop."

As the level of violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq and receded as a top issue in the 2008 presidential election, the Obama campaign and its advisers are sending what Democratic defense analysts describe as "tantalizing hints" that his troop withdrawal plan will be far more flexible and gradual than his earlier calls for a complete pullout regardless of the situation on the ground.

"Rather than unilaterally and unconditionally withdrawing from Iraq and hoping the international community will fill the void and push the Iraqis toward accommodation - a very unlikely scenario - the United States must embrace a policy of 'conditional engagement,'" writes Colin Kahl, a leading national security scholar at Georgetown University who is the chief coordinator of the Obama campaign's working group on Iraq policy.

"This approach would couple a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation," Mr. Kahl writes in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Kahl told The Washington Times that his article and similar proposals in previous papers reflect his own views and do not necessarily represent the position of the presumptive Democratic nominee. But other Democratic foreign policy analysts say that statements by Mr. Kahl and the senator's other advisers signaled the kind of advice he is getting - and considering - as he prepares for a fact-finding trip to Iraq later this summer.

The Iraq policy working group Mr. Kahl heads is made up of about two dozen people who include academics and former government and military officials, many from the Clinton administration. It includes foreign policy adviser Susan E. Rice, an assistant secretary of state under President Clinton; Richard J. Danzig, secretary of the Navy under Mr. Clinton; and Sarah Sewell, deputy assistant secretary of defense under Mr. Clinton.

Other Obama advisers have similarly differed with the freshman senator's plan to withdraw all combat forces over a period of 16 months.

Samantha Power, Mr. Obama's former foreign policy adviser, told the British Broadcasting Corp. in March that "You can't make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. senator. He will rely upon a plan ... that pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn't have daily access now."

Mr. Obama revealed Monday in an interview with the Military Times that he was now rethinking his unilateral call for a complete military pullout. Instead, he said any withdrawal would be "in a deliberate fashion, in consultation with the Iraqi government, at a pace that is determined in consultation with General [David H.] Petraeus and the other commanders on the ground."

"If, on the other hand, you've got a deteriorating situation for some reason, then that's going to have to be taken into account," he said.

The Illinois Democrat appeared to be wavering on his Iraq pullout plan when he told reporters in Montana last week that he was in the process of making changes in his withdrawal policy. "When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I am sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies," Mr. Obama said.

Sen. John McCain's camp immediately pounced on that statement, saying his "changed course" proved "his past positions to be just empty words," showing "once again that his words do not matter."

"It's clear Obama is rightly trying to reverse the central premise of his campaign: his pledge to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq," said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs dropped further hints of a more gradual withdrawal strategy Monday, telling CNN, "Obviously you have to give commanders on the ground flexibility. We'd be crazy not to."

Signals of a coming change on his Iraq policy, plus shifts on other positions he has staked out in the primaries, have infuriated many of his leading liberal supporters in the past week.

"There is a line between 'moving to the center' and stabbing your allies in the back out of fear of being criticized. And, of late, he's been doing a lot of unnecessary stabbing, betraying his claims of being a new kind of politician," said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the leftist Daily Kos Web site that has been a driving force in the party's opposition to the war.

In an earlier policy paper on Iraq that Mr. Kahl prepared for the center-left Center for a New American Security in March, he wrote: "The U.S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000-80,000 forces) by the end of 2010 (although the specific timelines should be the byproduct of negotiations and conditions on the ground)." A copy of his paper, which Mr. Kahl said Wednesday did not represent campaign policy and was "not meant for public consumption," was first reported in the New York Sun.

Mr. Obama, whose candidacy was fueled by his anti-war position on Iraq, has since softened the way he describes his pullout plan, saying he would be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." He began his campaign by calling for a total pullout, then changed that to all U.S. combat troops, which would leave thousands of other special forces behind.

In a lengthy telephone call last month with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Mr. Obama appeared to send a signal that his plan was far less rigid than he earlier suggested. Mr. Zebari said the presumptive Democratic nominee "reassured" him that he would do nothing to jeopardize Iraq's security gains. "He will not take any drastic decisions, or reckless actions," he said.

In his Foreign Policy article, Mr. Kahl specifically rejected the views of those Democrats who "are calling for a unilateral timetable for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces, regardless of the conditions on the ground."

"This policy of unconditional disengagement also gives up too much leverage, because it provides no ability to the Iraqi government to affect the pace of redeployment or the nature of U.S. support in exchange for making tough choices," he said.

In sharp contrast to Mr. Obama's withdrawal timetable of two brigades a month from the 15 combat brigades there now, Mr. Kahl suggests, "the new administration should signal its intention to transition to a 'support,' or 'overwatch,' role by announcing the near-term reduction of U.S. forces to perhaps 12 brigades."

Under his proposed troop drawdown scenario, "Once U.S. forces have reached a sustainable overwatch level, the primary mission of the U.S. military in Iraq will switch to counterterrorism, training and advising of the Iraqi security forces, and force protection for U.S. civilians and advisers."

These and other statements by Obama advisers have convinced several top Democratic Iraq analysts that the senator is softening his withdrawal posture but is not willing to flatly say that for fear of alienating his large anti-war base of support.

"Three or four of his other Iraq advisers are hinting of greater flexibility, though speaking for themselves. That indicates the potential for some change in his previous positions," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

All of this has sparked a debate in the Obama campaign Tuesday when it was asked to respond to a report in the New Yorker that the senator's withdrawal plans were open to change.

Mrs. Rice suggested that his position was flexible and open to changed circumstances in Iraq. "Senator Obama has said on numerous occasions he will listen to his commanders on the ground; he will follow and heed their advice, as he decides how at the strategic level we must proceed."

But Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat and a campaign co-chairman, insisted last week, "No, he will not [change course.] And Senator Obama fundamentally disagrees with that assessment."

Mr. McCain, a supporter of the Iraq war from the beginning and a defender of the U.S. military surge, backs a continued military presence there until the Iraqi government and its military can ensure the country's safety and stability on its own.