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Who Is Flipping Out?

In our current editorial, my colleagues flay the media--the usual target of politicians, not of the media itself--for suggesting that Barack Obama changed his position earlier this month on withdrawing from Iraq.  While acknowledging that he might have “shifted the accent,” they insist that he “affirmed a position that he has held for months.”    

I’ll take the side of the much-despised media on this question. If you look at Obama’s statement in Fargo, there are two things that stand out: first, Obama has stepped away from an absolute timeline for withdrawal; but secondly--and this is the key consideration--he makes withdrawal contingent on Iraq being “stable.” As far as I can tell, that’s entirely new, and sets the bar for withdrawal higher than it has been. 

If you look at Obama’s major statements on Iraq from the fall of 2007, you find mention of stability, but only in the context of a successful diplomatic effort. Here is Obama last December:

“We need to launch the most aggressive diplomatic effort in recent history to reach a new compact in the region. This effort should include all of Iraq's neighbors, and we should also bring in the United Nations Security Council. All of us have a stake in Iraq's stability. It's time to make this less about what America is trying to do for Iraq, and more about what the world can do with Iraq.”

I suspect that the new criterion for withdrawal, which includes stability, reflects what Obama is unwilling to acknowledge in his op-ed for The New York Times today: that the surge has, to some extent, created a measure of stability. Obama’s earlier position, I think, assumed that stability could only be achieved through a surge in diplomacy. Now he is saying that a continued military presence, combined with diplomacy, might do the trick. That’s not an unreasonable position, but it is different from what he was saying last year when he spelled out his plan for Iraq. At that time, Obama and other antiwar Democrats argued that the military’s presence was not contributing to stability, only at best to a short-term reduction in local violence.

Is Obama a flip-flopper? Well sure, but he certainly has competition from John McCain. And I would distinguish his recent moves to the center from what John Kerry did in 2003-2004 and earlier in his career. Kerry’s attempting to take credit for opposing and supporting the first Iraq war in 1991 and for supporting and opposing increased spending on the Iraq war in 2007 suggested an unwillingness to take any position. It was malignant flip-flopping, and the press and the Republican opposition was right to make a big deal out of it. 

Obama’s is more typical of what almost every presidential nominee does once he secures the nomination--sand off the hard edges that were appropriate to the primary, but that can only cause unnecessary friction in the fall. Ronald Reagan did it in 1980 on U.S.-Soviet relations, and Obama is doing it now on Iraq. That’s no reason to come down hard on him or to criticize the media for pointing it out.

--John B. Judis