But first, there's non-Obama related news from the war. Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times reports that Kurdish lawmakers boycotted a vote on the provincial election law, demanding it be rewritten and probably delaying the vote for months. The Kurds are upset over the status of Kirkuk, as usual, specifically how Kirkuk would be governed while its provincial elections are "indefinitely" postponed. The offending bill would divide the provincial council equally among Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds. Right now, the Kurds hold just over half of the seats. The bill also would put security of Kirkuk in the hands of forces from the middle and south of Iraq -- Arabs, in other words. Kurdish pesh merga now have a strong presence in the city.
Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post also have the story but have a hedged view of the Kurdish walkout, saying that it "could" delay provincial elections. It's these kinds of disputes that led Obama to say he didn't see political reconciliation happening soon (see below.)
In Amman, Jordan, Obama gave a press conference and defended his 16-month pullout plan, report Dan Balz and Sudarsan Raghavan of the Post. He said he would stick with the plan despite objections from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming commander of CENTCOM. The troops are needed in Afghanistan. In a typical Obamaism, he refused to be boxed in on whether he was listening to commanders or not. "The notion is, is that either I do exactly what my military commanders tell me to do or I'm ignoring their advice," he said. "No, I'm factoring in their advice but placing it in this broader strategic framework ... that's required." He also acknowledged the surge had helped reduce violence, but he added that political reconciliation, which would occur in the "breathing room" the surge promised to bring, has not developed enough. (Given the truculence of the Kurds, it's hard to argue with that.) While in Iraq, Obama met with the Anbar governor and police chief, as well as top Awakening figures. Police Chief Yousef al-Asaal said Obama seemed more interested in troop withdrawals than al-Asaal's defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, and there was no discussion about whether Iraqi troops were ready to take over or not. "If he had asked me about whether my forces were ready or not, I would have said you could leave, you and your forces," Asaal said. "I can control the province with my police forces, and I challenge al-Qaeda to come to take back one square meter." Well, OK then. Awakening officials asked Obama to keep the Marines in Anbar even if he withdrew troops from the rest of Iraq so that jihadis could be kept in check. No word on Obama's reaction to that request.
USA Today's Kathy Kiely reports from Amman on Obama's news conference. Reacting to charges that he had made up his mind before going to Iraq, he said, "facts have to affect your decision-making." But it's also important to set "clear objectives" and have sense where "you're trying to steer the ship."
Karen DeYoung and Jonathan Weisman of the Post write that Obama, in his first -- and only, probably -- overseas trip as the presumptive Democratic candidate, has shifted the foreign policy debate in his favor, "neatly sidestepping Republican charges that he has been naive and wrong on Iraq and moving to a broader, post-Iraq focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan." In short, the war in Iraq is all but over and the U.S. needs to move onto more urgent matters, such as Afghanistan. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has backed him up, by agreeing with his timeline, but many Republican allies of McCain are furiously asserting that Maliki is not the go-to guy that Dems now say he is. They say his comments are for domestic consumption only, which is why he made them first in Der Spiegel, which has huge readership in Iraq. I'm kidding. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stuck the shiv in deeper in McCain and Bush by essentially agreeing with Obama on many things. Afghanistan is "precarious and urgent," it needs 10,000 more troops and they're only going to come from Iraq. The zinger? This: "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." And that's Obama's argument in a nutshell: McCain and Bush have both had the wrong priority when it comes to the big picture. Yes, the surge may have been a deciding factor in pulling Iraq's bacon out of the fire, but the larger issues is that it wouldn't have been needed had Afghanistan been on the front burner from the beginning.
Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has a very smart piece today about how the surge has made Obama's foreign policy possible, and that policy makers in both Baghdad and Washington need to adjust to a post-surge environment. And that means a post-Iraq environment in America and a post-American environment in Iraq. In short, the narrative has shifted. The story is not about "winning" in Iraq because of the surge. It's done. Now, it's about the next phase, and Obama is focused on that. More Americans than ever are too.
The Post editorial page runs a critical piece of Obama for actually asserting civilian control of the U.S. military and putting Iraq into the bigger picture of America's long-term interests.
John D. Mckinnon, Yochi J. Dreazen and Elizabeth Holmes of the Wall Street Journal report that a consensus is forming on a timeline for U.S. troops in Iraq, and it's all pointing to some time in 2010.
USA Today's Gregg Zoroya reports that the federal government is spending more on vets today than at any time in modern history, exceeding even the 1947 high. Expenditures hit $82 billion in 2007 because of the rising costs of health care, the expense of caring for an aging population of mostly Vietnam War veterans and a new group of severely wounded troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (The U.S. spent $80 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1947.) And there's an 11 percent hike for this fiscal year, to $91 billion, and $94 billion for FY2009.
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Columnist Max Boot writes that "There is some irony in the fact that Democrats, after years of deriding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a hopeless bungler and conniving Shiite sectarian, are now treating as sacrosanct his suggestion that Iraq will be ready to assume responsibility for its own security by 2010." He then goes on to dismiss Maliki's statements as pointless posturing by a guy who has no military experience and has been sequestered in the Green Zone, "relatively isolated from day-to-day life." (Hey, just like George W. Bush!) Boot seems especially annoyed that Maliki "won't give U.S. troops their due" for the surge. What's really ironic is that neocons like Boot were lauding Maliki a year ago as the right guy for Iraq.
Harold Meyerson, another Post columnist, gives an approving nod to Obama's strategic vision regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and America's place in the world. "Obama's capacities as a national strategist -- the most important qualification for a commander in chief -- far outshine McCain's," he writes. And he finally brings up Vietnam as a formative time for McCain. If the U.S. had just stuck it out, had just had the will, Meyerson postulates McCain believes, then it would have won.
But fortitude and will are only part of the formula for success. A good president has to know which battles to fight militarily and which diplomatically, which battles are primary and which secondary. By these measures, Obama -- who always viewed the Iraq fight as a distraction from hunting down al-Qaeda and who understands that peace in Iraq depends on a political accommodation among Iraqi groups -- is clearly the better strategist.
Peter Marks reviews "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," the play about a wounded, female black vet missing a leg and a sense of home.
Christian Science Monitor
No Iraq coverage today.