Here’s a transcript of Barack Obama’s comments on Iraq. Read the whole thing. I admit I am worried, but in his remarks Obama seems to be clear that he, not the generals, will decide Iraq policy. And he reaffirms, explicitly, his sixteen-month timetable for pulling out combat forces. What worries me, of course, is the change in emphasis that Obama seemed to be signaling, especially since Obama isunder a great deal of pressure from liberal hawks to modify his Iraq stand.
You’ll note in what follows that Obama seems to be concentrating not on the withdrawal pace, i.e, one to two brigades a month over 16 months, but on the residual force that will remain. He talks about “how we should structure training for Iraqi military and police [and] what kinds of troop presence will we need in order for that to occur?” Previously, though, Obama has said very, very little on training. Instead, he has talked about counterterrorism and protecting the huge US embassy. So the emphasis on training is worrisome.
What follows is the transcript of his news conference in Fargo, North Dakota, in which he attempted to “try this again”and clarify his original remarks:
Q: In your opening statement you talked about obtaining training data on Iraqi forces, what can you learn in Iraq that you can’t learn in Washington, D.C.
Obama: Well there’s no doubt that a lot of this info I’ve been obtaining in Washington but I also think it’s important to be in discussions directly not only with commanders but also Iraqi officials. And other leaders in the region.
Q: Your website says U.S. troops will be out in 16 months. Is there a need to modify that information?
Obama : You know, I have to say that there is nothing that that website says that contradicts what I’ve said here. I will bring this war to close, I think it is important for us to do strategically.
Q: What did you mean when you said you might refine your Iraq policies? Does that mean no 16-month timetable?
Obama: No that’s not no, not refine the 16-month timetable, what I just referred to. For example, there’s been a major debate in terms of how we should structure training for Iraqi military and police what kinds of troop presence will we need in order for that to occur. What kind of troop presences will we need in order for that to occur? What kind of troop presence do we need in order to provide a counterterrorism strike force in Iraq that assures that al Qaeda does not regain a foot hold there? Those are all issues that obviously need to be determined by facts on the ground.
Q: Do you think it will be a challenge to explain to American people your Iraq policy over the next four months if you’ve had a problem over past four hours?
A: I guess I’m just puzzled. I mean I’ll be frank with you Jeff (Zeleny, New York Times). I think what’s happened is that the McCain campaign primed the pump with the press to suggest that somehow we were changing our policy when we hadn’t. And that just hasn’t been the case. I’ve given no indication of a change in policy. I haven’t suggested that we’re moving in a different direction. I think John McCain’s gonna have a much harder time explaining how he is willing to perpetuate a presence in Iraq for 10, 20, 50 years. The American people understand that we have fulfilled our obligations in Iraq. They are not interested in seeing Iraq collapse, but they are interested in seeing this war come to a close and what I’ve said today, as I’ve said over the last 2 years, is that if you follow my plan to begin wthdrawing troops and having our comabt troops out in 16 months, we’re talking about approximately 2 years from now having our combat troops out. Add on the 5 years we’ve already been there and we will have been there for 7 years. I think the American people understand that that has been a significant committment both of blood and of treasure. So I don’t think I’m gonna have trouble explaining my plan. I think that what John McCain’s gonna have to do is explain why he wants to extend it even further than that.
Q: When you add the term stability in Iraq to conditions for safe withdrawal, doesn’t that change qualifications for troop withdrawal?
Obama: No I – the – I have always said that it is important. I’ve always said and we can show you the transcripts that it is important – we have a strategic interest in Iraq and making sure that it doesn’t collapse. But what I’ve said consistently is that strategic interest is not served by having a permanent occupation there. That strategic interest is served by prodding the Iraqi factions and leadership to work together to negotiate, to negotiate a political accommodation, a politcal agreement. And making sure that the other powers in the region are bought into a stabilization plan. That can’t be imposed militarily and that’s the position I’ve been stating for the last two years.
Q: You’ve said you intend to end the war. Does that create wiggle room? In November of 2007 you said you would consult with generals but set policy.
Obama: And that, that, that, that is unchanged, that is unchanged. Let me be absolutely clear. As president I set the mission. This is a…I just had an interview with the Military Times yesterday in which I said one of the flaws in the president’s approach is to say that he is doing what General Petraeus tells him is the best thing to do. That’s not the president’s job. The President’s job is to tell the generals what their mission is. Because you have to take the entire strategic interest of the US in mind, not just one particular front when it comes to our national interest, and so the mission that I will set for our generals is to bring this war to close. That has not changed.
Q: But now it sounds as if you could hear different advice from generals and that could change your policy in Iraq.
Obama: Look and as I’ve said before and this was true during, you know, during the heat of the primary, it was true when we posted this website. I have always said, and again you can look at the language, that as Commander-in-Chief I would always reserve the right to do what’s best in America’s national interest and if it turned out for example that we had to in certain months slow the pace because of the safety of American troops in terms of getting combat troops out. Of course, we would take that into account. I would be a poor Commander-in-Chief if I didn’t take facts on the ground into account.
Q: You said that when you used the phrase “refine policy,” you were not refering to the 16-month timetable. Does that mean you can tell us today that you will not change the 16-month timetable?
Obama: (Laughs and pauses) Here’s what I can tell you–that I will bring our troops out at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades per month and at that pace we will have our combat troops out in 16 months. That is what I intend to do as president of the United States.
Q: What about response to those who say pulling out a brigade each in 1 or 2 a month is pulling out too rapidly?
Obama: Well the individuals that youre suggesting, those are the same folks who said we can’t pull troops out because things are too violent. Now that the violence has subsided you can’t pull troops out because things have improved. It’s a Catch 22. At some point we can’t allow U.S. policy and our larger strategic interests to be dictated by the failure of the Iraqis for example to arrive at a political accommodation. And keep in mind, much of my concern here has to do with what’s happening in Afghanistan, which has seen more violence in the eastern portion of the country than any time since 2001. Despite the fact that we’ve got an extraordinary force there of well-trained, well-equipped U.S. forces and yet we’ve still seen a spike in violence. And ya know the president has talked about putting more troops into Afghanistan, but it’s very hard to figure out where those troops are going to come from if we are sustaining the kinds of troop levels that we have in Iraq.
Q: Would critics argue that you might be sacrificing gains in Iraq for Afghanistan?
Obama: There’s is no indication that at the pace of gradual withdrawal that I’m talking about that you would lose some of the gains that have been made in Iraq.