IHT : On Iraq war anniversary, candidates stake out their differences

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Iraq war anniversary, candidates stake out their differences

By Adam Nagourney | March 18, 2008

WASHINGTON: This week's fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq provoked an intense exchange over the war among the three presidential candidates, illustrating the deep divisions over how to proceed there even as the violence has ebbed. The exchange left little doubt that the issue would be a major area of difference between the two parties this fall.

Though the milestone could have easily been overshadowed by the crisis on Wall Street, Senators John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama aggressively seized on Iraq in their campaigning Monday. That they did so, in the face of risks for each of them in the handling of the issue, was evidence of the large role all sides believe the war will continue to play in months ahead, even as the weakening economy takes center stage.

Of the three, Clinton, Democrat of New York, moved the most aggressively, and perhaps most unexpectedly, given the extent to which her vote in 2002 to authorize the war has caused her problems with Democratic primary voters.

She delivered a speech in Washington in which she renewed her pledge to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president. But she also used her platform to attack both Obama, who she again said had been inconsistent on the war, and McCain.

McCain, the Arizona Republican who has championed the war and was long an advocate of the eventual policy of increasing the American troop presence in Iraq, was in Baghdad to mark the anniversary and said in an interview there that Clinton's approach was a prescription for defeat at the hands of Al Qaeda.

Obama, Democrat of Illinois, engaged Clinton for challenging the depth of his opposition to the war. He talked again of having spoken out against it from the outset, a distinction that has served him well in the primaries. Obama has been parrying criticism from Clinton and McCain, who have similarly questioned his credentials to be commander in chief.

While Iraq may have faded from public consciousness a bit, in reflection of a drop in the number of casualties and rising concern about the economy, it remains a politically defining issue for both parties, one sure to shape the arguments about national security this fall. The day's back-and-forth amounted to a preview of that debate.

"Despite the evidence, President Bush is determined to continue his failed policy in Iraq until he leaves office," Clinton said at a lightly attended speech at George Washington University. "And Senator McCain will gladly accept the torch and stay the course, keeping troops in Iraq for 100 more years if necessary.

"They both want to keep us tied to another country's civil war, a war we cannot win. And that, in a nutshell, is the Bush-McCain Iraq policy: Don't learn from your mistakes - repeat them."

Clinton argued that the troop "surge" advocated by McCain had failed to produce the kind of change the White House promised, as evinced by the fact that the troop level in Iraq at the end of the surge will be the same as at the beginning.

Talking to CNN in Baghdad, McCain, who has long said that his candidacy could rise or fall on what happens in Iraq, maintained that Clinton "obviously does not understand or appreciate the progress that has been made on the ground." But more tellingly, he returned to what has been the main Republican argument against Democrats since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, suggesting that they would not protect the nation from terrorism.

"If Mrs. Clinton's plan to begin withdrawal in 60 days is enacted," he said, "I just think what that means is Al Qaeda wins."

Clinton sought to make a case that Obama could not be counted on to withdraw American forces as rapidly as possible. She said he had not taken action in the Senate to stop the war and pointed to remarks by Samantha Power, who stepped down this month as an Obama foreign policy adviser after calling Clinton a "monster" and suggesting that as president, Obama would not necessarily abide by the troop withdrawal schedule he has laid out as a presidential candidate.

In an interview with the BBC, Power had said that Obama's pledge to withdraw one or two combat brigades per month was "a best-case scenario," not necessarily what could be achieved should he take office.

"One choice in this election is Senator McCain, who is willing to keep this war going for 100 years," Clinton said. "You can count on him to do that. Another choice is Senator Obama, who has promised to bring combat troops out in 16 months. But according to his foreign policy adviser, you can't count on him to do that."

Obama responded at a town hall meeting in Monaca, Pennsylvania.

"Let me be absolutely clear: I opposed this war in 2002, in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007," he said, speaking over the crowd's applause. "I have been consistent in saying we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. I've been clear that this was a strategic error, unlike Senator Clinton, who has voted for this war and has never taken responsibility for it."

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Scranton, Pennsylvania.