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Flipping Out

So Obama will listen to his generals and consider the facts on the ground before fully withdrawing from Iraq. OMG! WTF? Rick Klein of ABC News exclaimed, "There's been lots of speculation this week about whether Barack Obama has an Iraq problem. He does now." Time's Mark Halperin told Anderson Cooper, "This is one of the biggest things that's happened so far in the general election."

Yes, it's stop-the-presses enormous: Barack Obama has affirmed a position that he has held for months. Granted, the press was right to notice that Obama had shifted the accent in his Iraq talk--no doubt marketing himself to a broader audience. But the fine print of his pronouncements and policy papers has always contained nuances and caveats, reasons why he might slow down a pullout and keep troops in Iraq over a longer horizon. In May, Michael Crowley wrote about these provisos in our pages (see "Barack in Iraq," May 7).

Even when Obama delivered his first major speech calling for withdrawal, in November 2006, he hedged:

I am not suggesting this timetable be overly rigid. ... The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and offers us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining current troop levels. ... In such a scenario, it is conceivable that a significantly reduced U.S. force might remain in Iraq for a more extended period of time.

What's more, he has always left open the possibility that his administration would leave a substantial number of troops on the ground to guard our embassy, train the Iraqi army, and combat Al Qaeda. And, even though he didn't regularly spell out these wrinkles during the primary, he did routinely say, "We should be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in." In fact, he never went nearly so far as Hillary Clinton in unconditionally casting his lot with withdrawal. Therefore, it is ludicrous for journalists only now to appreciate these nuances of his position--and even crazier for them to equate his emphasis of these nuances with flip-flopping.

That flip-flopping has become the most damning accusation against a politician speaks to the poverty of the political process. Here's how the system currently works: As candidates prepare to enter the race, they devise a foreign policy platform. Then, for the next two years, they must resolutely defend that platform. Any deviation from their original position papers will be treated by their opponents--and, in turn, by the press--as a deep character flaw, evidence that a candidate will do whatever it takes to win the presidency.

This is the fate that befell John Kerry, and it's a particularly mindless dynamic. Foreign affairs, especially ongoing wars, are filled with twists and turns, many of which couldn't possibly be predicted years out. Consider all the potential shifts that might take place within Iraq in the next six months: The Iraqi government could demand that the United States head for the exits; Iran could exact revenge for an Israeli strike by launching a wave of suicide attacks; the Iraqi sects could construct a new framework that moves the country substantially closer to political reconciliation. Nobody has a perfect record predicting the course of events in Iraq--and it's absurd that candidates should be rewarded for sticking to stances conceived so long ago.

And, while Obama has clearly reframed his Iraq position with an eye toward November, he also has good substantive reasons for backing away from some of his past rhetoric. The improvements within Iraq are real. Although they may not presage a liberal democracy or justify the permanent presence of our troops, Obama would be a fool if he didn't take these new trends into account. The dynamic within Iraq has changed since he initially conceived his policy during the bloodiest days of sectarian warfare. And there's certainly no reason why he should be rewarded for continuing to argue his Iraq stance as if nothing is different.

All in all, the recent flaying of Barack Obama makes for a depressing object lesson in how our press and our political discourse treat nuance. If Obama, as we've been told, suddenly has a "problem" on Iraq, it's only because American politics has a much deeper one.

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By The Editors