- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Republican and Democratic strategists say the prospect that President Bush will begin pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in the fall would deflate Sen. Barack Obama’s signature presidential-campaign issue and vindicate Sen. John McCain’s support for the surge.

The Bush administration appeared to be laying the groundwork last week for additional troop reductions in the coming weeks, possibly after Labor Day, the traditional kickoff point for the general election - stealing the issue from Mr. Obama, who based much of his campaign on his initial opposition to the war and a subsequent pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat forces within 16 months of taking office.

Concluding that there “now appears to be a degree [of] durability in gains” secured by U.S. and Iraqi forces and that the Iraqi military was nearing a point where it can assume responsibility for the country’s security, Mr. Bush said Thursday that Americans can expect “further reductions in our combat forces, as conditions permit.”

That would effectively remove a leading Democratic issue and raise further questions about Mr. Obama’s ability to be commander in chief as a result of his rigid opposition to the military surge that he predicted would fail, advisers in both parties said Friday.

“I think it takes away what Obama considers to be an issue that works in his favor and also puts the focus more on the economy and energy prices, where he wants to increase taxes during a recession and doesn’t really have a plan to bring us to energy independence,” said Charlie Black, senior strategist for the McCain campaign.

“The more success we have in Iraq and the more that casualties are down and the more troops we’re able to bring home, the more it is a vindication of the surge strategy advocated by John McCain,” Mr. Black said.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have fought over their respective strategies for the war in Iraq, with the Arizona Republican rejecting the Illinois Democrat’s 16-month withdrawal timetable, arguing instead that his opponent’s pullout schedule was arbitrary and dangerous, and that any withdrawal had to be based on “conditions on the ground.”

But a key Democratic national security adviser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said that any troop withdrawal during the election could make Mr. Obama’s redeployment plan seem much more conventional, though he saw vulnerabilities for his party’s presumptive nominee as well.

“Obviously, you could say it helps Obama in that his [withdrawal] timeline no longer appears so out of whack. It also helps him with centrist voters and thus makes it harder for Republicans to portray him as not ready to be commander in chief,” said Michael O’Hanlon, national security analyst at the Brookings Institution. “But I still don’t like his withdrawal plan because it is rigid and still too fast.”

“On the other hand, [Mr. Bush’s pending withdrawal plans] would increasingly demonstrate the surge has been a huge success and, thus, arguably worrisome that Obama does not understand the war we are fighting very well and is not ready to be commander in chief,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

“We don’t want to have to go through another learning curve, so Obama may be vulnerable to the extent that he keeps insisting that the surge is relatively unimportant. I think that would help McCain,” he said.

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