A person in the candidate's orbit assures me that Obama has long talked about "stability" as a component of his Iraq plan. But I'm not finding much evidence that he has ever specifically linked stability to his troop withdrawal timeline before, as he seemed to do when he said in a Thursday press conference that "[m]y guiding approach continues to be that we’ve got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.”
Obama's official Iraq plan does say he "will launch the most aggressive diplomatic effort in recent American history to reach a new compact
on the stability of Iraq and the Middle East." (Boldface added by me.) But in context, that reads as something he would do in conjunction with a troop withdrawal. The plan offers no indication that withdrawal would be contingent upon the progress of the stability "compact," or stability itself. Whereas his comment last week left a pretty different impression.
For more context, here's Obama speaking last July:
“We have not lost a military battle in Iraq. So when people say if we leave, we will lose, they’re asking the wrong question,” he said. “We cannot achieve a stable Iraq with a military. We could be fighting there for the next decade.”
Obama said the answer to Iraq — and other civil conflicts — lies in diplomacy.
Maybe this is all Obama meant to say when he referred to stability last week. It's possible he was speaking imprecisely, and merely reiterating the basic importance of stability--but only as a goal to be achieved through diplomatic and not military means.
If, however, Obama is now linking a U.S. troop presence to "stability," that's a very big deal. It's also something I imagine must infuriate Hillary Clinton, who seemed to view things this way and was badly outflanked on her left as a result. I say the jury's still out.
Update: Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor emails the following:
He has talked in the past about getting out of more stable areas first. This doesn’t impact the 16 month timetable, it simply suggests that you leave the more stable areas before you leave the more volatile ones.
Vietor also sends along this passage from Obama's big September 2007 Iraq speech in Clinton, Iowa:
“We should enter into talks with the Iraqi government to discuss the process of our drawdown. We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later. But our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month. If we start now, all of our combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the end of next year.” [Note that end of next year refers to 16 months from September '07.]
This still begs the questions of what Obama would do about those "more volatile areas." He says here that he would withdraw from them "later." Just how much later is the key question.