Barack Obama’s July 3 statement that he would “continue to refine” his policy on Iraq based on a “thorough assessment” of conditions on the ground and more information from military commanders prompted howls of protest (and a few cheers) from across the political spectrum. Antiwar activists worried that he was softening his earlier commitment to end the Iraq War on a fixed timetable; Republicans accused him of flip-flopping. Meanwhile, a rising chorus of establishment voices applauded Obama’s comment as a step toward a “reasonable position” based on an open-ended policy of “conditional engagement.” Faced with such obsessive parsing of his remark–based on the premise that Obama had shifted course–the candidate was forced to the podium (and the New York Times op-ed page) to clarify.

“I have said throughout this campaign that this war was ill-conceived, that it was a strategic blunder and that it needs to come to an end,” Obama emphasized, while reiterating his support for a sixteen-month timeline for the withdrawal of combat troops, contingent on the US measure of security and stability in Iraq. “That position has not changed,” he maintained.

Obama is right about the consistency of his position, and for progressives, therein lies both the promise and the limitations of what an Obama presidency might mean for the Iraq occupation.

In 2002, as the majority of Democrats in the Senate voted to authorize the Iraq War, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, warned against “a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” He correctly diagnosed the enormous toll the war would have on America’s ability to address problems at home and abroad, and he later became one of the first national leaders to call for a phased withdrawal of troops. More than any other stance, it was this clearheaded rejection of the muddled calculations of the inside-the-Beltway crowd that set Obama apart from his major rivals for the Democratic nomination. More than any other candidate, he seemed to speak for the majority of Americans who opposed the futile sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives for no other reason than to avoid the perception of US surrender. So when candidate Obama pledges to give the military a new mission–to end the war–on his first day in office, is a commitment to change backed by a credible and courageous record as a critic of the war.

That said, Obama’s Iraq plan has always left the door open for what could become an “occupation of undetermined length” under a Democratic President. Even as he rejects permanent US military bases in Iraq, Obama has said that no timetable should be “overly rigid.” He has indicated that he would “work with our military commanders” to determine a withdrawal plan. He has supported the presence of residual troops, which could number as many as 80,000, to guard a militarized embassy, combat terrorism and provide training and assistance to the Iraqi government.

These positions, which he echoed in his Iraq speech on July 15, are not new, but they do raise the concern that Obama’s pledge to end the war on a timetable could become subordinated to a shifting landscape of worst-case scenarios that impose new and unachievable conditions for withdrawal. Moreover, it is troubling that his plan does not ban the use of private military contractors. And his call for a strategic redeployment of US troops to Afghanistan and Pakistan, escalating the US military presence there–instead of emphasizing the need to redirect our foreign policy away from occupying Muslim lands and toward resolute diplomacy to deal with threats and crises–raises serious questions about the foreign policy path he would pursue as president.

Still, it is clear that electing Obama is essential to ending the war in Iraq. But his victory is not sufficient to guarantee an end to the Iraq occupation on terms that are swift, just and complete. The challenge for those committed to that goal is to deploy a multipronged strategy that gets Obama into the White House and then holds him accountable for his promises as the antiwar candidate who spoke out so forcefully against open-ended occupation.

The immediate objective ought to be to ensure that Obama and the new Congress enter 2009 with an unequivocal and urgent mandate to end the war. For that to happen the election must be seen as a national referendum on the war, which has already receded behind the economy and gas prices as a key voter concern–while polls are showing that the electorate is split down the middle on a timeline for withdrawal. One way to refocus voter attention on the Iraq disaster is to emphasize how spending $120 billion a year on the war will make economic recovery and energy independence impossible. The Democratic platform process also offers an occasion to raise an unambiguous call to end the Iraq War (this plank has been proposed by fifty superdelegates and the Win Without War coalition). Obama’s campaign has invited voters to participate in platform meetings in their communities, which could be another vehicle for such a program. As the aftermath of the 2006 midterm election demonstrated–when Congressional Democrats rode a wave of voter anger at the war but then did far too little to reverse it–voter discontent with the war does not necessarily lead to political action. For that, there must be a clear plan and real accountability for implementing it; the Congressional candidates who produced A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, and have vowed to stick by it, recognize this.

Outside the arena of electoral politics, antiwar progressives must continue to develop their own movement against the war, their own analysis of its failures and their own proposals. A new report, Quickly, Carefully, and Generously: The Necessary Steps for a Responsible Withdrawal From Iraq, is a powerful answer to those who caricature withdrawal as “cut and run” (see Chris Toensing, “Exiting Iraq Is Easier Than They Say“). Without such analysis, we risk ceding the terms of withdrawal to the national security “experts” who were wrong about the war but are still committed to proving it a “success.”

This magazine has called for complete withdrawal of US forces and contractors from Iraq (“Why We Must Leave Iraq,” September 24, 2007), for regional diplomacy to stabilize the area and a recognition of our country’s obligation to compensate the Iraqi people and provide resources to address the humanitarian crises–including the plight of nearly 5 million refugees–that the US occupation initiated or exacerbated.

Obama’s plan for an exit from Iraq falls short of this standard. But in calling for an end to the occupation and by holding firm to a timetable for withdrawal, it offers a fundamental paradigm shift from plans put forth by the Administration and Congress–and John McCain.