No major drama, which the Obama camp will surely take. Obama generally looked relaxed and in-control. The most fraught exchange came at the beginning of the hour, when Brokaw pressed him on the surge. The Obama strategy was three-fold: 1.) Acknowledge that the troops did great work in suppressing the violence, as he predicted they would. 2.) Argue that the current calm in Iraq owes itself to more than just the surge. Political decisions by Iraqi actors--like the Sunni awakening, which was underway before the surge--also played a big role. 3.) Move the question of judgment away from the surge and toward other issues, like initial support for the war.
Obama accomplished all three in his initial pass at the question:
MR. BROKAW: Do you believe that President Maliki would be in a position to more or less endorse your timetable of getting troops out within 16 months if it had not been for the surge?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, we don't know, because in my earlier statements--I mean, I know that there's that little snippet that you ran, but there were also statements made during the course of this debate in which I said there's no doubt that additional U.S. troops could temporarily quell the violence. But unless we saw an underlying change in the politics of the country, unless Sunni, Shia, Kurd made different decisions, then we were going to have a civil war and we could not stop a civil war simply with more troops. Now, I, I...
MR. BROKAW: But couldn't they make that political decision because troops were there to help them make it.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, the--well, the--look, there's no doubt, and I've said this repeatedly, that our troops make a difference. If--you know, they do extraordinary work. The troops that I met, they were proud of their work, they had made enormous sacrifices, they had fought, they had helped to construct schools and, and rebuilt the countryside. But, for example, in Anbar Province, where we went to visit, the Sunni awakening took place before the surge started, and tribal leaders made a decision that, instead of fighting the Americans, we're going to work with the Americans against al-Qaeda. That was a political decision that was made that has made a huge difference in this entire process.
So the, the point I want to make is this, Tom, I mean, you know, if we want to look at the question of judgment which is the one that John McCain raised, John McCain's essential focus has been on the tactical issue of sending more troops, and he's, he's made his entire approach to foreign policy rest on that support of Bush's decision to send more troops in. But we can have a whole range of arguments about past decisions--the decision to go into Iraq in the first place, and whether that was a good strategic decision, where we've spent a trillion dollars at least by the time this thing is over, lost thousands of lives in pursuit of goals John McCain supported that turned out to be false. We can make decisions about does it make sense for us to set a time frame for withdrawal to encourage the kind of political reconciliation that needs to take place to stabilize Iraq. We can talk about the distractions from hunting down al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where there is no doubt that we would be further along had we not engaged in some of these actions, and...
With the CW about the benefits of the surge rapidly hardening, there just isn't an airtight answer to these questions. But Obama did about as well with it as he could have. The only slip came when Brokaw homed in on the Sunni awakening. This time, Obama didn't mention how it preceded the surge, appearing to concede that it was made possible by the greater troop presence. (That may largely be true, but it would still have been worth pointing out that it hinged on a political decision the Sunnis had already made.)
MR. BROKAW: And the Anbar awakening, most people believe, was successful in large part because the American troops did come in and make it possible for them to have the kind of political reconciliation...
SEN. OBAMA: Tom, look--Tom, I'm, I'm--the fact that--the...
MR. BROKAW: Do you disagree with that?
SEN. OBAMA: As I said before, our troops made an enormous contribution, but to try to single out one factor in a very messy situation is just not accurate, and it doesn't, it doesn't take into account the larger strategic issues that have been at stake throughout this process. Look, we've got a finite amount of resources. We've got a finite number of troops. Our military is stretched extraordinarily because of trying to fight two wars at the same time. And so my job as the next commander in chief is going to be to make a decision what is the right war to fight, and, and how do we fight it? And I think that we should have been focused on Afghanistan from the start. We should have finished that job. We have not, but we now have the opportunity, moving forward, to begin a phased redeployment and to make sure that we're finishing the job in Afghanistan.
Overall, Obama was pretty deft at deflecting the MTP-style curveballs Brokaw threw at him. He nicely sidestepped the David Brooks critique of his Berlin speech that Brokaw practically read in its entirety. He had solid answers on the housing market crisis, on race, and on why polls show so many more Americans think he's a riskier choice than McCain. The latter is worth quoting at length:
The fact is is that our campaign has been based on the idea that we need to fundamentally change how we do business, both domestically and internationally; that we should have a different kind of foreign policy we are deploying all of America's power, not just our military, but also our diplomatic, economic, cultural, political power; that domestically, we've got to promote not just trickle-down economics, but bottom-up economic growth and reinvest in, for example, the clean energy sector. All those things--anytime you're bringing about big change, there are some risks involved. But it's important, I think, to note that, in that poll, I'm also leading. And, and so what that indicates is that the American people are ready for change.
Probably the purest gotcha of the day came when Brokaw asked why, if Afghanistan looms so large in his strategic thinking, Obama only just made his first trip there. Obama stumbled a bit before noting, correctly, that visit or no, he'd actually made the right strategic call on Afghanistan from fairly early on, and that even George Bush and John McCain had subsequently come around to his view.
Good answer. But the more interesting part was the subtext: Obama was implying that these overseas trips are pretty superficial, and that they're not a great proxy for judgment or even experience. You can take a lot of them and make the exact wrong call, or take none and make the exact right call. TV anchors like Brokaw put a lot of weight on them, both because they're in the business of selling images, and because one of the ways you move up in the TV news business (i.e., accrue "experience") is to travel overseas a lot. But the same is not necessarily true of a would-be president.
After all the hype surrounding the Obama trip, that's probably a fitting note to end on.