Monday, July 28, 2008

McCain Painted Into Corner as U.S., Iraqis Move Toward Troop-Withdrawal Timetable

Under Pressure From Baghdad -- and Scrambling to Find More Troops to Send to Afghanistan -- White House Agreement to Talk 'Time Horizon' for Troop Withdrawal from Iraq Appears to Embrace Obama's Position and Undermine McCain's

McCain and Obama

Republican presidential candidate John McCain (left) has been sounding increasingly bitter in his attacks on his Democratic rival, Barack Obama (right) over Obama's insistence on a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But he may be just as angry, at least privately, at the White House, as the Bush administration, at the insistence of the Iraqi government -- and scrambling to come up with more troops to send to Afghanistan -- agreed to consider a "time horizon" for a pullout from Iraq. (Photos: Getty Images and Reuters)


NOTE TO READERS: This will be my last column for the next two weeks, as I'm going on vacation. The next edition of The 'Skeeter Bites Report will be published on Monday, August 18.


By Skeeter Sanders

Senator John McCain has been sounding increasingly strident in his attacks on fellow senator -- and presidential rival -- Barack Obama in recent days over Obama's insistence on a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, accusing the Democratic nominee-elect of playing politics with war for his own gain.

The Republican nominee-elect also lashed out at Obama for not appearing with U.S. troops in Germany during his just-completed tour of Europe, claiming in a new TV ad that it would not generate sufficient publicity for his campaign.

But McCain's attacks appear to be motivated less by public anger at Obama than by private fury toward his chief ally, President Bush.

McCain's campaign centerpiece -- that the U.S. stay the course in Iraq -- is being undermined by the White House, which last week agreed, at the insistence of the Iraqi government, to consider a "time horizon" of 16 months for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, according to The New York Times.

Although McCain said publicly last Friday that the 16-month "time horizon" was "pretty good timetable" -- provided that it be based on conditions on the ground -- the Arizona senator was reported as being privately furious at the White House, not only for the withdrawal timetable, but also with the Bush administration's decision to authorize high-level talks with Iran and North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue with the two countries that President Bush labeled part of the "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

Bush Reversal Comes Amid Iraqi Pressure, Worsening Afghan Situation

Bush, who has steadfastly opposed any troop-withdrawal timetables for Iraq, made his dramatic about-face as the Iraqi government for the first time publicly voiced its preference for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from its territory by the end of 2010 -- which fits neatly with Obama's vow to pursue a strict timetable for a phased withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops from Iraq over 16 months, starting , if elected, shortly after his inauguration in January.

Bush made his policy shift under pressure from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which is pressing for a withdrawal timetable as a condition for an agreement for continued U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the expiration at the end of this year of the United Nations resolution that authorized the troop presence after the toppling of the dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

Without a new agreement, the UN would be free to brand the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegal occupation" after December 31.

Adding to the pressure is a growing need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where more GIs and Afghan army soldiers are becoming casualties in an intensifying insurgency by the Taliban and other fighters. Intelligence reports say that insurgents appear to be shifting their operations from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Both Obama and McCain have pledged to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Obama has long argued that the war in Iraq was a diversion away from the "real war on terror" against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan -- a position McCain flatly rejects.

A Foreign-Policy Rift Opening Up in the GOP

The apparent divergence of opinion between Bush and McCain on Iraq may be part of a wider rift over foreign policy that's developing among Republicans as the Bush administration enters its final six months.

Hard-line neoconservatives, who lost much of their influence in the Bush White House as the Iraq war went sour in 2005 and 2006 -- and are now wielding considerable clout in the McCain campaign -- are openly accusing Bush of moving in Obama's direction on foreign policy.

“Bush and Obama do seem to be setting the foreign policy agenda, and McCain seems to be reacting to it,” Kenneth Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan, told The New York Times.

Former UN Ambassador John Bolten agreed. “There’s no doubt. . .[that] Bush has adopted policies in the direction of Obama, [and] that that gives Obama bragging rights,” Bolten told the newspaper. “But if you believe as I do that this administration is in the midst of an intellectual collapse, it doesn’t hurt McCain. Occasionally in politics it helps to be right.”

Bolten -- a recess appointee who was forced to step down as the U.S. ambassador to the UN last year after Senate Democrats blocked his confirmation -- has been a sharp critic of the administration's foreign policies ever since, particularly its talks with Iran and North Korea to resolve a standoff over their nuclear development programs.

But other Republicans say that McCain is proving himself to be much more hawkish than Bush, citing his call for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations and his public embrace last week of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader -- which is sure to antagonize China just two weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

McCain's move could also threaten China's cooperation with the U.S. in its efforts to defuse the North Korean nuclear impasse.

For its part, the McCain campaign will have none of it. Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser, denied any split between McCain and the president. “Does he [McCain] feel he's had the rug pulled out from under him by Bush? Absolutely not," he told The Times. "John McCain has always said that he wanted the troops to come home. But he is opposed to an artificial date-driven timetable that ignores conditions on the ground and the advice of military commanders.”

McCain Risks Damaging Long-Cultivated 'Good Guy' Image

Nonetheless, McCain's increasingly strident attacks on Obama are coming under fire from some GOP strategists, who warned that McCain risked damaging his long-cultivated image as a "straight shooter" who repeatedly vowed would not stoop to the kind of negative campaigning that has marked past contests for the White House.

"I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into 'You're less patriotic than me. I'm more patriotic,' " Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I admire and respect John McCain very much. . . . John's better than that."

Hagel -- who's the subject of much speculation that he might become Obama's vice-presidential running mate -- was among several members of Congress, including Obama, who went to Afghanistan and Iraq last week on a fact-finding mission. From there, Obama visited the Middle East and Europe in a tour that was paid for by his presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, as McCain steps up his attacks on Obama, the Illinois senator, fresh from his highly-publicized trip overseas, turned his attention Monday to a self-acknowledged McCain weakness -- the economy. Obama attacked what he called "irresponsible decisions" by the Bush administration and Wall Street as the chief causes of the country's economic woes.

Obama made his comments ahead of a closed-door meeting in Washington with more than a dozen economic advisers, just as the White House budget office warned that the next president will inherit a record budget deficit of $482 billion -- a far cry from the record $100 billion surplus that Bush inherited from President Bill Clinton in 2001.

"It was not an accident or a normal part of the business cycle that led us to this situation," Obama told reporters. "There were some irresponsible decisions that were made on Wall Street and in Washington."

Obama called on Congress to pass a second economic stimulus package to revive the economy, part of a broader strategy of short-term and long-term measures, including a focus on renewable energy to curb high fuel prices and on universal health care to trim costs.

McCain Insists Obama Wrong on 'Surge' -- Only to Get It Wrong Himself

The Arizona senator has been particularly prickly over Obama's statements on Bush's controversial troop buildup of 2007, known as "The Surge." Obama contends that a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and a cease-fire called by the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of his Medhi Army fighters combined with the "surge" to produce the improved security situation there.

McCain called that a "false depiction" and insisted that the "surge" was the principal reason for the dramatic reduction of violence in the war-torn country.

But McCain's assessment is at odds with the fact that the rebellion of U.S.-backed Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq's Anbar province was under way weeks before Bush announced in January 2007 his decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.

It's also at odds with the fact that the level of violence plummeted dramatically only after al-Sadr called his Medhi Army's six-month cease-fire in February 2007. He has since extended the cease-fire for another six months in August 2007 and last February. It's up for renewal next month, but there's no guarantee that al-Sadr -- who's now in Iran -- will extend it further.

McCain asserted he knew that and insisted he didn't commit a gaffe. "A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components. ... I'm not sure people understand that `surge' is part of a counterinsurgency."

TV Images May Be What's Really Bugging McCain

But what could be annoying McCain the most are the TV images that Obama's trip to the war zones, the Middle East and Europe have produced back home. Clearly designed to burnish his foreign-policy credentials, there's no denying that those images -- especially of his speech before nearly a quarter-million people in Berlin -- are likely to have an impact on American voters' impressions of the Illinois senator.

Perhaps even more importantly, the reception that Obama has received abroad during his trip is more revealing about where American really stands with the rest of the world. What many Americans have perceived as an anti-American attitude by the rest of the world since 9/11 is really hostility toward the Bush administration's foreign policies.

With the McCain campaign taking foreign-policy positions to the right even of Bush, the Obama campaign is certain to exploit that by further bolstering its longstanding argument that a McCain presidency would be, for all intents and purposes, a third Bush term.

With a little help -- however unwittingly -- of Bush himself.

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Volume III, Number 43
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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