Saturday, July 26, 2008

nothing but net

So how well has Obama’s overseas trip gone? It started with him nailing a three-pointer on his first attempt before a crowd of cheering US troops in Kuwait. Check out the video:

And it only got better from there.

Keeping with the basketball metaphor, he definitely got some assists from the Republicans.

And not just McCain riding around in a golf cart with George Bush Sr. while Obama was in a military helicopter flying over Iraq with General Petraeus.

Or McCain having lunch at Schmidt's Sausage Haus und Restaurant in German Village, Ohio while Obama was speaking before a crowd of more than 200,000 in Berlin. (By contrast, when Reagan gave his famous speech at Brandenburg gate in 1987, about 20,000 supporters were brought in for the occasion, positioned to provide a backdrop and prompted to cheer. When the speech was over, they were bused home.)

The first big assist came from none other than George W. Bush. It was only May when Bush spoke before the Israeli Knesset and likened Obama to a Nazi appeaser for his willingness to engage in high-level diplomacy with Iran. McCain said that Obama’s approach was “naïve” and “showed a lack of experience.” The entire right-wing noise machine piled on. Then, just before the Obama trip, Bush sent the State Department’s number three official, William Burns, to Geneva for direct talks with the Iranians – something Bush had been insisting for years wouldn’t happen unless or until Iran abandoned its nuclear energy program. The US also let it be known that it would soon be establishing an Interests Section (i.e., an unofficial embassy) in Tehran for the first US diplomatic presence in Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution. So much for Obama’s “naivete.”

(None other than crazy John Bolton accused the Bush administration of a “complete intellectual collapse.” In fact, it was an ideological collapse. Bush used to insist that we couldn’t talk to Iran because it was “evil.” Iran would have to submit to our will before negotiations rather than as a result of negotiations. Now the Bush approach is conceptually indistinguishable from the Obama approach Bush and McCain had been characterizing as “appeasement.”)

At the same time, McCain last week finally came around to the Obama view that more US troops were needed in Afghanistan. In April of 2003, McCain was saying that “nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America” so we could focus on Iraq instead. “We don’t read about [Afghanistan] anymore, because it’s succeeded,” he explained in October 2005. Earlier this year, McCain argued that “Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.” Another McCain flip-flop.

On the other hand, Obama has been consistent in calling Afghanistan “the central front in the war on terror” and the Iraq war a distraction. A year ago, Obama called for at least two additional US combat brigades and $1 billion in non-military assistance for Afghanistan. (As Rosa Brooks said in the Los Angeles Times last week, “Obama, who has been fairly consistent on Afghanistan for six years now, is either the rare politician who doesn’t suffer from ADD, or he’s smart enough to take his meds.”) Now, finally, McCain has come around to the view that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. But he still isn’t saying where the additional troops will come from.

As a result of the distraction of the Iraq war, Osama bin Laden is still at large. Al Qaeda has reconstituted a sanctuary along the Pakistani border. The Taliban is on the offensive. More US troops are now dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mullen said, “I don’t have the troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.” In an interview with PBS’s News Hour a few days ago, Adm. Mullen said he shares Obama’s assessment that the situation in Afghanistan is “precarious and urgent.” The 10,000 additional troops needed there, he said, would not be available “in any significant manner” unless there are withdrawals from Iraq. For now, he said, “my priorities … given to me by the commander in chief are: Focus on Iraq first. It’s been that way for some time. Focus on Afghanistan second.”

As Adm. Mullen noted, the military’s priorities are established by the president. This is a point Obama has been making for some time and that the media seems to have a difficult time comprehending. That may be understandable because Bush has been insisting for years that the course of these wars must determined by the “commanders on the ground.” As Obama said on an ABC Nightline interview this week, “What I will refuse to do is to get boxed into what I consider two false choices. Either I have a rigid timeline, come hell or high water, and I am blind to anything that happens in the intervening 16 months, or, alternatively, I am completely deferring to whatever the commanders on the ground say, which is what George Bush says he is doing, in which case I‘m not doing my job as commander in chief. I’m, essentially, simply rubber-stamping decisions that are made on the ground.” Obama has made it clear he will set a new mission – withdrawing from Iraq and shifting resources to Afghanistan – but that he will listen to his commanders as to how that is done.

Obama cited the $10 billion being spent monthly on the Iraq war at a time of economic struggle in the US. “If we’re spending $10 billion a month over the next four or five years, that’s 10 billion a month we’re not using to rebuild the US, or drawing down our national debt, or making sure that families have health care. So, these are all trade-offs the next president is going to have to make.” How complicated is that? The president decides the “what” and then works with the “commanders on the ground” on the “how.”

Of course, Obama’s biggest assist came from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. It started with an interview with the German magazine
Der Spiegel which included the following exchange:

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will
finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in
November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better
understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.

In response, the Bush White House and McCain campaign freaked out. The US Central Command (not the Iraqi government) issued a statement supposedly from a Maliki spokesman saying Maliki had been “mistranslated or misinterpreted” but not saying specifically in what manner he had been misquoted. In an interview on NBC’s

Today show, McCain insisted that Maliki didn’t really mean what he said: “I have been there too many times. I’ve met too many times with [Maliki], and I know what they want.” He dismissed Maliki’s statement as “inartful.”

Turns out the translator had been Maliki’s own. The New York Times got an audio tape of the interview from Der Spiegel and confirmed that the translation was, indeed, accurate. If there was any doubt that Maliki meant what he said it was resolved after his meeting with Obama. The same Maliki spokesman who had been quoted by the US Central Command said that the Iraqi government hoped that American combat units could be out of Iraq sometime in 2010. This, of course, was perfectly consistent with Obama’s timeline of 16 months from taking office. And that’s where things stood. The Iraqi Prime Minister had all but endorsed Obama’s withdrawal timeline.

That put McCain in a difficult situation, as he has made the centerpiece of his campaign the notion that Obama’s withdrawal timeline would constitute “surrender” – although it is not clear to whom we would be “surrendering” as most people thought the whole point of the exercise was to turn Iraq over to a democratically-elected Iraqi government. Indeed, that is what McCain himself said we should do back in 2004. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, McCain was asked what he would do if a “sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there?”
McCain’s response was unambiguous: “Well, if that scenario evolves than I think it’s obvious that we would have to leave because — if it was an elected government of Iraq, and we’ve been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government then I think we would have other challenges, but I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.”

Following Obama’s Iraq visit, an NBC/Wall Street Journal polls found that Americans by 2 to 1 (60% to 30%) agree with the Obama/Maliki timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. (Polls show that
more than 70% of Iraqis also want the US to leave as soon as possible.) Most Americans apparently are coming around to the view that if the Iraqi government wants us to leave, what is the hold up? Even Republican Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a reliable opponent of withdrawal timelines, said, "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. We can't have it both ways. We should say we're heading for the door."

These developments left McCain without much in the way of a narrative on Iraq except to insist that he was “right about the surge.” This has left McCain in an awkward position. Until this week, Obama’s argument seemed at least partially backward looking – his initial opposition to the war in Iraq demonstrated sounder judgment on world affairs. Now, McCain’s support for the surge seems equally academic going forward as both Washington and Baghdad have moved toward Obama’s call for a timetable for withdrawal. If McCain wants to look backward and boast about his support for the surge, Obama can counter with his initial judgment that the war was a bad idea – a view most Americans now share. And going forward, the American people now seem solidly behind Obama’s approach.

McCain himself is now saying that the 16 month timeline, “
sounds like a pretty good timetable.” Huh? This is exactly the opposite of what McCain has been saying for years. For example, during the Republican primaries, McCain hammered Mitt Romney for hinting at support for a conditions-based timetable for withdrawal. In a debate, McCain was indignant: “Timetables was the buzzword for those that wanted to get out.” In other words, when Romney dared to suggest a timetable was a good idea, McCain thought it was a dreadful mistake, because the word “timetable,” in and of itself, was loaded with policy implications. Now he is saying the idea is “pretty good” as long as it is “conditions based.” Does anyone have any idea what McCain’s position on Iraq is these days?

Even with regard to the surge, McCain seems confused. In an interview with Katie Couric on CBS last Tuesday, McCain said, inaccurately, that the surge strategy was responsible for the much-touted "Anbar Awakening," in which Sunni sheiks turned against Al Qaeda, helping in turn to reduce violence in the country. According to a
transcript from that interview:

COURIC: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says, while the
increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also
credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And
says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What's
your response to that?

McCAIN: I don't know how you respond to something
that is as-- such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel
MacFarland was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge
we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar
awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history.

This is a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what happened in Anbar. It is not merely a “gaffe”. This is McCain’s signature issue – the whole raison d’etre of his presidential campaign. This is something YOU CANNOT GET WRONG if you’re McCain. Colonel (now General) MacFarland explained in September 2006 – months before Bush even decided the launch the surge and a good six months before the surge began – that the Awakening was already underway. This is not controversial history. It is history anyone trying out for the position of commander in chief must understand when there are 150,000 troops in Iraq. According to the McCain narrative, military force came first and solved the problems in Anbar. This is a reversal of reality. If that is the lesson he takes away from the Awakening, he may apply it in other crises he faces – in Iran, for example.

Not only did McCain insist that the surge preceded the Awakening, but he did so in a snide manner dismissive of Obama, asserting for good measure, “that’s just a matter of history.” Obviously, this is BIG news – especially given the media obsession with the potential for an Obama “gaffe” on his overseas trip. Indeed, this is probably the biggest presidential campaign blunder since Gerald Ford said in 1976 that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

So how did CBS play it? They edited it out of the interview. That’s right. It landed on the
cutting room floor. (CNN aired the portion of the video that was edited out. Check it out.) Not only did CBS edit it out, Couric aired comments by McCain spliced together from three separate statements he gave during the interview, one of which responded to a different question. Couric gave no indication that these comments had been edited in any manner, nor did she otherwise note McCain's falsehood. (Splicing together answers to different questions is a violation of CBS News’ own rules.) CBS created a new answer rather than airing the most extraordinary gaffe of the presidential campaign to date. (So much for the “liberal” media.)

Instead of airing McCain’s
actual erroneous answer, this is the imaginary answer they created through editing:

COURIC: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says while the increased number of U.S.
troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni
awakening and the Shia government going after militias, and says that there
might have been improved security even without the surge. What's your response
to that?

McCAIN: Senator Obama has indicated by his failure to acknowledge
the success of the surge, that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign.
Thanks to General [David] Petraeus [commanding general of the Multi-National
Force in Iraq], our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. I
mean, to deny that their sacrifice didn't make possible the success of the surge
in Iraq, I think, does a great disservice to young men and women who are serving
and have sacrificed. There will still be attacks. Al Qaeda's not defeated. But
the progress has been immense. And to not recognize that, and why it happened,
and how it happened, I think is -- is really quite a commentary.

Compare that with McCain’s actual answer above. Does it bear any resemblance?

But I digress.

Karl Rove is famous for believing that you should go directly at the strengths of an opposing candidate, believing it was more effective than concentrating on the opponent’s weaknesses. Obama has done the obverse of that – dealing directly with his own perceived weaknesses. In keeping with the positive tone of his campaign, he didn’t go negative on McCain, seeking to undermine McCain’s perceived foreign policy advantage by building up his own credibility. McCain (like Hillary Clinton before him) has tried to create doubt in the minds of voters as to whether Obama passes the “commander in chief” test. He has sought to create doubt as to how Obama would perform on the world stage. He sought to make Obama’s policy proposals look reckless and irresponsible. Obama took on that challenge directly in a high-risk move that he executed with perfection. Can anyone any longer doubt that Obama is fully capable of performing on the world stage? Whose foreign policy approaches now look more prescient and more in tune with the course of events? Who is looking more “presidential”?

In the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Obama’s positions have come to look safe and reasonable, undercutting McCain’s core argument about Obama’s inexperience. And with both McCain and the Bush administration seen as moving his way with each passing day, it’s hard for Republicans to dismiss Obama’s ideas as dangerous or impractical.

As Michael Grunwald


in TIME magazine:

Last week, the McCain campaign's case against Barack Obama went something like this: He's irresponsible when it comes to Iraq, naive when it comes to Iran and a Big Government liberal when it comes to the economy. But now Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has more or less endorsed Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq, forcing McCain to argue that al-Maliki didn't really mean it, and even the Bush Administration has accepted a "time horizon" for withdrawal, if not a precise "timetable." The Bush Administration has also ngaged in some diplomatic outreach with Iran, just as Obama has recommended, a severe blow to McCain's efforts to portray Obama's willingness to engage in dialogue as appeasement. And on the economy, a TIME/Rockefeller Foundation poll found that 82% of the country supports more federal infrastructure spending designed to create jobs. When Big Government liberalism is all the rage, McCain's courage in opposing water projects or the farm bill becomes less of a selling point. …

But Obama is getting to look like a leader this week, comparing withdrawal plans with
al-Maliki, welcoming the Bush Administration to the it's-O.K.-to-negotiate-with-Iran club, making McCain look like an isolated warmonger. It was one thing when McCain was framing the election as a monumental decision of victory vs. surrender; time horizon vs. timetable is going to be a tougher sell. Meanwhile, Obama's campaign has been signing up thousands of new Democratic voters and shoveling in cash it can use to introduce him to America. …

… In politics, anything's possible.

That doesn't mean that anything's probable. The media will try to preserve the illusion of a toss-up; you'll keep seeing "Obama Leads, But Voters Have Concerns" headlines. But when Democrats are winning blood-red congressional districts in Mississippi and Louisiana, when the Republican President is down to 28% approval ratings, when the economy is tanking and world affairs keep breaking Obama's way, it shouldn't be heresy to recognize that McCain needs an improbable series of breaks. Analysts get paid to analyze and cable news has airtime to fill, so pundits have an incentive to make politics seem complicated. In the end, though, it's usually pretty simple. Everyone seems to agree that 2008 is a change election. Which of these guys looks like change?

And as Eugene Robinson
wrote in the Washington Post:

… There has been much comment about the extraordinary luck that has followed
Obama's new Boeing 757 around the globe like an escort plane. Indeed, from the
Obama campaign's perspective, it would be hard to script a better series of set
pieces. He lands in Afghanistan just as allied commanders and even Bush
administration officials endorse his view that more U.S. forces are needed there
urgently. He moves on to Baghdad, and Iraqi officials promptly echo his call to
set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. He tiptoes through the minefield of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and somehow comes out unscathed. After all this
good fortune, the Berlin stop became more like a state visit than a political
foray. The huge media contingent traveling with Obama, lacking gaffes or
controversy to grill him about, was reduced to asking how it felt to be welcomed
by cheering multitudes whose hosannas would embarrass a conquering hero.

A line commonly attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca says it best: "Luck is
what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Legendary movie mogul Sam
Goldwyn was even pithier: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Obama has been talking about the need to pay more attention to Afghanistan -- and to schedule a pullout from Iraq -- for more than a year. His enthusiastic welcome
in Berlin owed much to the way he has made restoring America's image in the world a major theme of his campaign. Obama helped make the good luck that he's now enjoying.

Bad luck is a different thing, however. As Franklin Roosevelt said, "I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm."

John McCain is having an "early worm" kind of week. It's not just that he goaded Obama into taking his trip. And it's not just that the world's attention has been focused on Obama's trip, while McCain's plane was met in New Hampshire the other day by only one reporter.

It's also that McCain's attempt to capitalize on one of his most promising issues -- energy prices -- while Obama was preoccupied with foreign affairs has seemed jinxed. The McCain campaign had the idea of helicoptering the candidate to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico to highlight his support for eliminating the ban on new offshore drilling. But Hurrican Dolly made the trip dicey -- and a barge accident in New Orleans that spilled 420,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Mississippi River made it even dicier. A big, noxious oil spill was not the backdrop McCain wanted. He ended up making a hastily scheduled campaign appearance at a grocery store -- not quite the same thing as commanding the world stage from the Victory Column in Berlin.

But a run of bad luck doesn't justify McCain's increasingly angry rhetoric. His new attack line is that Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign" -- a stunning charge to level against a fellow U.S. senator and perhaps a reflection of McCain's frustration at having failed so far to paint Obama as some kind of geopolitical naif.

If the grouching and grumbling continue, a campaign that once promised to be a referendum on Barack Obama's experience threatens to become a referendum on John McCain's temperament. At the moment, one of the candidates is acting presidentially and one isn't. …

The jury is still out on how much Obama’s trip abroad will help him. Up to this point in the campaign, Obama has had to answer endless media concerns about his lack of experience and expertise on foreign policy issues (even while conceding McCain expertise that he increasingly appears to lack). After this past week, Obama is less of an unknown in that regard. Instead of spending the next 100 days playing defense on foreign policy, he can focus on the issues that most concern Americans. He can go on the offense on economic, energy and environmental issues – issues where Obama already holds a commanding advantage over McCain. As one commenter has


We won't know if Obama's trip effects a lasting change in the media narrative, and that kind of shift is not something that will show up directly in polling. But if, having established his authority on foreign policy and ability to stand on a world stage, Obama could simply move on to the other issues he needs to win, it could represent a real change in the ground on which this election is fought.

Obama’s trip abroad was a bit of a long shot.

And he hit nothing but net.

No comments: